While the EU Commission prepares to release new legal limits on the levels of fusarium mycotoxins in unprocessed cereals, breakfast cereals and bread next month, several UK organisations are trying to educate farmers on how to minimize their risk of contamination.
Mycotoxins are toxic compounds that may be caused by some species of fungi. Fusarium mycotoxin is a devastating crop contaminant and even a mild bout can cost growers up to 25% of their yield.
It is a particular worry for bakery firms as mycotoxin remains stable during processing and, if found in the raw grain, can reoccur in foods containing wheat flour.
The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published interim guidelines on its website with the aim of preparing farmers in advance of next season and the Home
Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) recently released the results of a five year study into mycotoxins, undertaken in collaboration with the FSA, entitled 'Managing the Fusarium mycotoxin risk in wheat'.
An FSA spokesman said: "It is very important that producers and processors throughout the cereal chain are aware of the new legislation."
From 1 July, EU regulations will apply on the maximum levels of the contaminant intended for human consumption in member states.
The legal limit for deoxynivalenol fusarium mycotoxin (DON) in finished products such as bread and breakfast cereals will be 500 parts per billion while the maximum for zearalenone fusarium mycotoxin (ZEAR) is set at 50 ppb.
Flour will be able to contain 750ppb DON and 75ppb ZEAR and the limits for unprocessed wheat are 1,250ppb DON and 100ppb ZEAR.
In this context, unprocessed wheat is intended to mean wheat which has undergone cleaning and sorting but has not been subjected to any scouring process.
Online documents from the FSA and HGCA urge farmers to assess their own crops according to several factors including weather, crop rotation, cultivation and the type of grain.
Sowing susceptible varieties of wheat on land that has previously grown maize, with little tillage and high plant stress produces the highest risk of contamination and may result in the tell-tale pink grains which can indicate infection - the FSA recommend mycotoxin testing and enlisting the help of a professional agronomist in such cases.
To reduce the risk of infection, the Agency advises using T3 triazole fungicides for controlling fusarium ear blight (especially if the weather will be wet during flowering), ploughing rather than tilling and choosing grain varieties with a higher blight resistance.