How to prepare for ergot limits in cereals for harvest 2021

Growers need to prepare for new EU regulations covering maximum limits on ergot in cereals, to avoid loads being rejected by millers and merchants from harvest 2021 onwards.  The current 0.05% weight limit will be reduced to 0.02% and strict maximum limits on ergot alkaloids in processed cereal products will be applied.

How to prepare for ergot limits in cereals for harvest 2021
How to prepare for ergot limits in cereals for harvest 2021

Growers need to prepare for new EU regulations covering maximum limits on ergot in cereals, to avoid loads being rejected by millers and merchants from harvest 2021 onwards. 

The current 0.05% weight limit will be reduced to 0.02% and strict maximum limits on ergot alkaloids in processed cereal products will be applied.

For growers, it means that ergot will have to be considered as a serious compliance issue next year, highlights Nabim senior technical adviserJoe Brennan. He stresses that any contaminated grain should be cleaned before delivery to a mill.

Failure to do so runs a high risk of rejection, he warns. “Handling grain containing sclerotia increases its general ergot content, putting the onus on cleaning grain as early as possible to reduce sclerotia breakage and further mycotoxin contamination.”

What is ergot?
Ergot is a fungal disease caused by Claviceps purpurea, where airborne spores infect the floret of flowering grasses and cereals in late spring/early summer.

Once in the spikelet, these spores increase rapidly and form fungal structures, with honeydew being produced prior to flowering. This contains many more spores.

The ergot sclerotium then develops – with a characteristic dark purple or black body forming in place of the kernel, often bigger than the wheat grain would be. This contains dormant fungus, which can go on to germinate and release spores.

Once they fall to the ground at harvest, the sclerotia remain viable in the soil for up to one year.

Health risk
While it has very little effect on yield, ergot contains large amounts of toxic alkaloids. When fed to animals or used to make flour, these can pose a significant risk to both animal and human health.

In the past, the disease ergotism – or St Anthony’s Fire as it was often called – arose when ergot alkaloids were ingested. It is the earliest recorded example of mycotoxosis and caused hallucinations, spasms, gangrene and, often, death.

As such, it is a food safety issue, continues Mr Brennan, who points out that many UK mills already operate to a lower limit for ergot of either 0.01% or even zero tolerance. He adds that the industry should expect more mills to adopt these stricter levels.

“Even at the new level of 0.02% level, the alkaloid content of the grain can be too high to ensure compliance with processed product levels.”

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