“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
“Don’t worry, he won’t eat much.”
I’ve always been able to appreciate a light-hearted, albeit nerdy joke. But tell it to a feed producer, and you might face a more serious reaction; they’re less likely to laugh when a fly lands in their soup, or more importantly when contaminants, such as metal or mycotoxins, find their way into the feed.
Safety issues have always been a top concern for feed producers, but with the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, they have become an even bigger focus. Issues like Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, foot-and-mouth disease, dioxins, mycotoxins, and E.coli O157:H7 can all be traced back to feed safety issues. With the consumption of animal products expected to increase by 70% by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) making sure the feed supply is free from contaminants is a worldwide health priority. Understanding the biggest contamination risks and the technologies available to reduce those risks can give feed producers a leg up on avoiding feed contamination.
Metals and mycotoxins are two of the biggest contamination risks in feed; however, they can be tricky to discover because they may not be obvious.
The most worrisome metals for feed producers are the most toxic – arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. These metals can cause the most harm to animals and to the humans who eat them. Properly identifying any metal contamination in feed is essential to keeping both livestock and people safe. However, a challenge we face is being able to identify metal-contaminated feed through metal detectors, making it hard to differentiate between a metallic supplement (which can be good for our systems) and a metal that is a food safety risk.
Mycotoxins are another contamination risk. Mycotoxins are poisonous chemical compounds that are produced by fungi. They enter the feed through moldy grain, usually caused by poor storage conditions or because the grain was damp, damaged or cracked. These mycotoxins can cause respiratory problems in both livestock and humans. With the rise of global temperatures, grain producers are experiencing more extreme weather conditions; this can contribute to the presence of mycotoxin-producing fungi in grain, making screening for them a food safety priority.
Mitigating the risks
Now that we know the contamination risks, what can we do about it?
While metal contamination and mycotoxin-producing fungi are a concern, properly screening feed for these problems can keep the feed supply safe and the world fed. New technologies are making that screening process easier.
Using a metal detector is the best way to screen feed for metal contamination. However, proper training and the right equipment are important for the best success. When metal detectors are not properly set up and monitored, they can give a large number of false positives, which can limit their effectiveness and may even lead to them being turned off. Newer equipment on the market can eliminate these issues because the equipment is sensitive enough to detect the difference between dangerous metals and those like iron that are added to the feed as a supplement, reducing the risk for a false alarm.
Metal detectors can also help feed producers identify where the contaminant is entering the production process. Camilo Sanchez, product manager in metal detection for Mettler Toledo shares:
“A very important part of this process is not only identifying the contaminant but also trying to do a root cause analysis to identify where are these metal contaminants coming from? In feed, sometimes you enrich the product with things like ferrous, iron supplements, and those supplements can create conditions in which the metal detector might think there are contaminates and that is where the technology comes into play. The machine will be capable of identifying whether or not the product has been enriched and instead of rejecting it, [the technology] will be able to identify that while there is a lot of iron, it is part of the recipe. ”
The goal is not just to detect the contamination but to eliminate its source, so identifying the source of the problem is a big part of the feed safety process.
When it comes to mycotoxins, the poisonous chemical compounds are hard to detect. The best way to identify mycotoxin-contaminated grain is by looking for the mycotoxin-producing fungi. The newest testing equipment can identify several types of mycotoxin-producing fungi with one test. This testing is essential to prevent mycotoxin-contaminated feed from entering the marketplace and causing damage to both livestock and people.
Keeping safety at the forefront
The global commercial feed manufacturing industry turns over more than $370 billion a year, according to the FAO. And rapidly growing populations means that consumption of animal products is set to rise by 70 percent in 2050; this is going to require an increased amount of feed production as well as ensuring its safety.
While the risks of metal- and mycotoxin-contaminated feed aren’t new, advances in testing and detection technology make identifying contaminated feed much easier. Feed producers can protect their livelihoods and the world’s food supply by investing in these new technologies to reduce the risk of metal and mycotoxin contamination, and maybe even the fly that lands in your soup.
Gretchen Henry is the co-founder and CEO at Sprout Solutions, a full-service software platform that provides mills and merchandisers in the agricultural industry with accurate, Web-based tools and systems.