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Keeping Food Safe - FAO collaboration with CiBi


In September 2016 the Italian magazine CiBi published an edited version of this article as part of an ongoing collaboration between FAO and CiBi. The CiBi articles aim to raise awareness with the magazine's readership about the different areas of work in FAO.

St Anthony's Fire


In the Middle Ages a type of food poisoning called ergotism, also commonly known as “St Anthony’s fire”, was prevalent in northern Europe amongst high consumers of rye bread. Eating food contaminated with ergot would lead to a range of symptoms from headaches, vomiting and diarrhea to hallucinations and gangrene. The contamination occurred then, as it does today, when the fungal spores of ergot (Claviceps purpurea) carry on the wind to the flowers of the rye where they germinate and infect the plant, producing toxic compounds known as alkaloids. If, when the grain is harvested, the fungus is not removed then it can remain in the flour and end up in bread and other food products. Ergot that falls to the ground can also be consumed by grazing animals after the harvest season. Excessive consumption by the animals can even lead to miscarriage.

Tolerable daily intake

In 2012 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) established a tolerable daily intake quantity of ergot alkaloids of 0,6 micrograms per kg of body weight per day. In 2013 The Federal Institute of Risk Assessment in Germany (BfR) concluded in its assessment of individual cases that there was a potential risk for consumers (toddlers and pregnant women) eating baked products and flour containing ergot alkaloids.

Of course the regulations cannot only apply to humans. As cattle, sheep and poultry are also particularly sensitive to ergot toxins, many countries have established maximum permitted levels for ergot alkaloids in feed.


These ergot alkaloids are one example of a mycotoxin – a natural toxic substance produced by fungi that exist in our diet due to their presence on food crops.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is the joint FAO, WHO UN body, established in 1963, charged with setting international standards for food to ensure that food is safe to eat and trade. The Codex code of practice on mycotoxin contamination in cereals contains recommendations for national authorities to reduce mycotoxin contamination in these products. Codex also sets maximum levels (MLs) for contaminants in food and feed where those contaminants, such as mycotoxins, present a significant risk to public health and a problem for international trade. MLs assist in reducing dietary exposure to contaminants while ensuring that the measure is not overly trade restrictive. When a country adopts a Codex text it can be sure that it is operating in accordance with the most robust and rigorous independent scientific advice and the latest developments in science and technology available. 

Good practices and HACCP

In the case of mycotoxins in cereals the Code of practice advises farmers and producers on good agricultural and manufacturing practices such as crop rotation, weed or insect control, use of pesticides and fertilizers as well as on harvesting and storage. It also stresses the advantages of adopting a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. This is a food safety management system used to identify and control hazards in any production and processing procedure. If you work in industrial food production or are hired even temporarily to serve drinks at a sporting event, you will probably do a HACCP course. The HACCP system recognizes that farmers are unable to fully control the factors that lead to mycotoxin contamination (from the environment or from insects), but they can and should identify those critical control points after harvesting and during storage. In addition, the MLs guide governments when developing public health legislation so that food with levels of contaminants higher than those specified in the law cannot be sold.

Need to assess risk 

Farmers need to continuously assess the risk from mycotoxins to both crops and animals. These good practices together with harmonized international legislation on permitted maximum levels will ensure that highly contaminated cereals do not enter the food chain. From growers to retailers, all food business operators following the rules set by Codex are able to ensure that food is safe in every home.


Download the complete September edition of CiBi (in Italian) here.

The Codex Committee on Contaminants in Food deals with mycotoxins (more)

Photo credit: ©FAO/Alessia Pierdomenico