Member of European Parliament (MEP) Giovanni La Via submitted a written question to Parliament asking for aflatoxin-free labels on almond products free of the “carcinogenic” substance.
He claimed that almonds produced in California and exported to Europe often contain significant quantities of the substance, but said nuts grown elsewhere – such as in Italy – are known to have zero aflatoxin levels.
“The Avola almond, cultivated in the Syracuse area of Sicily, is one of the most well‑known and best Italian almonds and has a zero aﬂatoxin content,” La Via said.
“Does the Commission not, therefore, consider it appropriate, in order to protect consumers, to authorise the words ‘aﬂatoxin‑free’ in almonds which, after being tested, are shown to contain no traces of this substance?”
However, the Commission did not have the necessary data to prove La Via’s claims that Californian-grown almonds are at higher risk of aflatoxin contamination than almonds grown in Sicily.
In any case, it argued that no almond growing regions are completely free of aflatoxin risk.
“Aﬂatoxins are mycotoxins produced by fungi primarily Aspergillus sp. These fungi are also present in Italian agricultural environments. There are no almond varieties resistant to infection by these fungi,” EU health and food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis noted in his response.
The Commission subsequently rejected the proposal, noting all almonds sold in the EU already comply with “strict” maximum aflatoxin levels deemed to provide a “high level” of human health protection.
“Only almonds compliant with the maximum levels for aﬂatoxins can be placed on the EU market. Regulation ([EU] No 1169/2011) does not provide for labelling requirements related to the presence of contaminants, including aﬂatoxins,” Andriukaitis said.
Aflatoxins are toxic fungal metabolites (or mycotoxins) produced when Aspergillus moulds grow on some raw foods, including nuts, cereals, oilseeds and spices.
The World Health Organisation categorises aflatoxins as a category one carcinogen, meaning they are a definite cause of cancer.
La Via said the EU regulation on allowed aflatoxin levels was raised from 4 ug/kg to 8.10 ug/kg in 2010.
Aflatoxin risk factors
“The highest levels (of aflatoxins) are usually found in commodities from warmer regions of the world where there is a great deal of climatic variation,” according to Food Safety Watch.
In its response to La Via, the Commission urged producers to keep aflatoxin levels as low as “reasonably achievable” by applying prevention methods during growth, storage and handling.
The US Department of Agriculture has also stressed the importance of aflatoxin certification for almonds, pistachios and peanuts exported to the EU.
“Fungal growth and aﬂatoxin production occur in almonds pre‑harvest, but may proliferate in storage and continue in the handling stage,” Andriukaitis said.
The debate follows in the wake of a Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) report earlier this year, showing a big rise in mycotoxins in general (not just aflatoxins) found in food products globally.
The US and Canadian had some product recalls listed in the report, due to contamination with mycotoxins in peanut and almond proteins.
Yet, incidents in the US and Canada could not be connected to any products on the market in Europe.
Other studies look to preventative methods, including a 2014 study from Italy which found processing techniques like caramelisation can cut aflatoxin levels in almonds.
The study processed contaminated almonds and found that up to 70% of aflatoxins were wiped out during preparation and cooking of almond nougat in caramelised sugar.