FAO capacity building activities in the mycotoxin area

Programs for prevention and control of mycotoxins are very important due to the impact of these contaminants on consumer safety (IARC, 1993), food availability and trade. Despite many years of research and the introduction of good practices in the food production, storage and distribution chain, mycotoxins continue to be a problem. In 1996, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development approved a work program on indicators of sustainable development that included mycotoxins in food as one component of an indicator related to protection and promotion of human health.

Regulations that limit the levels of mycotoxins in foods and feed because of their public health significance also can affect food security (food availability), especially in developing countries. Losses due to mycotoxins in developing countries extend beyond the losses in grain and animal production, as export markets may be lost to the stricter limits and possible non-tariff barriers that result from these mycotoxin regulations. FAO estimates of world losses of foodstuffs due to mycotoxins are around 1,000,000,000 t per year.

Losses can be minimized by a multi-factorial food chain mycotoxin management approach. Four principles underlie this approach: (i) establishing science-dependent, realistic and risk-based regulatory levels that are proportionate to the risk incurred and not overtly protective, (ii) systematically managing mycotoxin risks through country-specific practical recommendations and national action plans, (iii) implementing adequate tools, e.g., good agricultural practices (GAP) and a HACCP system, along the food chain that prevents, controls or reduces the damage resulting from fungal contamination, and (iv) adopting early warning systems based on climatic models that predict when mycotoxin outbreaks are likely.

The most important challenge faced in mycotoxin research and management in developing countries is the development of sustainable prevention and control strategies based on appropriate and feasible methods within the context of making available food for one of the fastest growing populations in the globe. The risks posed by mycotoxins in food present enormous difficulties to these countries and the international organizations responsible for controlling mycotoxin levels. International consensus on tolerable levels for mycotoxins is very difficult to reach due to deficiencies in the risk database and inconsistencies in risk management decisions in spite of concerted action by international organizations and institutions such as FAO with the Codex Alimentarius and JECFA to address all of the components of the mycotoxin issue, including new methods for risk evaluation and control strategies.

FAO facilitates assistance in capacity building programs in six major areas: (i) assisting countries in implementing national standards and harmonizing them with Codex, (ii) risk assessment and scientific advice, (iii) training at both normative (guidelines, codes and tools) and operational levels (workshops and seminars); (iv) advice and strategies for prevention and control of mycotoxins, (v) technical assistance (field projects), and (vi) strategies for increasing information communication and dissemination (brochures, web pages and newsletters). FAO capacity building activities in these areas may be in conjunction with international organizations, national governments, international and regional financial institutions and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). The activities and strategies differ by region and by country. Often, technical assistance is provided to assess and analyze the institutional set up for food control to identify the main weaknesses, and to formulate recommendations and proposals for establishing technically sound food control systems that are harmonized with international standards. Specific capacity building activities usually include training food control officials and technical staff through seminars, workshops and study tours, enhancing food control laboratory and inspection capabilities, preparing training manuals and guidelines, and establishing and strengthening policies, regulatory frameworks and National Codex Committees.

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