EUROPE – The European Commission (EC) has amended regulations for sclerotia and ergot alkaloids in food products such as barley, wheat, spelt, rye and oats and processed cereal-based food for infants and young children, where they are predominant.

Ergot is the broad term used to describe the infection and toxins produced by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which infects cereal grains. Ergot is most common in rye and triticale, a hybrid of rye and wheat, and it occasionally infects wheat and barley, but rarely oats. Grasses can also be infected and pass spores on to cereal crops.

The quantity and pattern of ergot alkaloids vary between fungal strains and the host plant. The fungus produces dark growths known as sclerotia on the grain, which survive milling and baking processes to contaminate bread and other products.

The maximum levels for ergot sclerotia are currently defined within the Codex standards at a level of 0.05%. The EC had earlier proposed the lowering of this level to 0.02%. In 2019, the EC proposed the introduction of limits for total ergot alkaloid content of 75 parts per billion (ppb) in processed barley, wheat, spelt and oats products, 250 ppb in processed rye products, 20 ppb in processed cereal based food for infants and young children.

There are also amendments to the legislation for ergot sclerotia, which contain ergot alkaloids. Lower levels of ergot sclerotia can already be achieved in most cereals by use of good agricultural practices and by sorting and cleaning techniques.

Since rye has a higher contamination risk making it laborious to eliminate the mycotoxin, the EU has set a higher maximum level for rye milling products and a lower limit for milling products of other cereals. These different levels depend on the ash content of the products as items containing more bran — higher ash content — have naturally higher levels of ergot alkaloids as dust of ergot sclerotia is absorbed to bran.

Additionally, a higher maximum level for ergot alkaloids in wheat gluten has been established. Wheat gluten, as a by-product of the wet milling process, contains higher levels of ergot alkaloids despite the application of good practices, as ergot alkaloids concentrate because of its production process.

To allow the EU Commission to monitor progression toward the stricter maximum levels and to assess possible modifications because of changes in agricultural practices or in climatic and environmental factors, member states must provide data and information.

Affected foodstuffs put on the market before January 2022 may continue to be sold until their dates of minimum durability or use-by. Certain maximum levels do not come into force until July 2024.

Member states have until January 2023 to share results of investigations with the EU Commission as well as progress on applying prevention measures to avoid contamination by ergot alkaloids in rye and rye milling products and in milling products of barley, wheat, spelt and oats grains.

Countries also need to report on a regular basis occurrence data on ergot alkaloids in these products to the EFSA database.

EFSA on Ergotism regulations

In June 2012, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) adopted an opinion on ergot alkaloids in food and feed. It established a group acute reference dose of 1 μg/kg body  weight and a group tolerable daily intake of  0,6  μg/kg body weight per day. EFSA concluded that, although data did not indicate a cause for concern for any population subgroup, dietary exposure estimates related to only a few food groups, and there could be possible unknown contributions from other foods.

In July 2017, EFSA published a report on human and animal dietary exposure to ergot alkaloids. For some population groups, estimates indicated an exposure close to the tolerable daily intake. For the highest exposure estimates, the main contributors to chronic dietary exposure were different types of bread and rolls such as those containing or made of rye.

Ergotism effects

Ingestion of ergot alkaloids can cause ergotism in humans and animals which was common in humans centuries ago but is rare nowadays. It can lead to hallucinations and in extreme cases loss of limbs. Other symptoms include abdominal pains, vomiting, burning sensations of the skin and insomnia.

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