Explained: Zearalenone in cereals

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Mains Paper 2: Governance | Issues relating to development & management of Social Sector/Services relating to Health, Education, Human Resources

From the UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Zearalenone (can be pronounced as Zee-ralley-none)

Mains level: Zearalenone and health issues associated with its consumption


News

  • This month, a Journal of Food Science study detected zearalenone in wheat, rice, corn and oats from markets in Uttar Pradesh.
  • The study, by researchers from Lucknow’s Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), found the substance in 70 of the 117 samples tested.

What is Zearalenone?

  1. Zearalenone is a fungal toxin infesting cereals such as wheat, maize and barley.
  2. It attacks crops while they are growing, but can also develop when cereals are stored without being dried fully.
  3. While numerous studies document this toxin in cereals across the world, no data existed for India until now.

Zearalenone’s hazard

  1. There is no strong evidence of toxicity in humans so far, though several research groups are investigating.
  2. As a result, the IARC classifies it as a Group 3 carcinogen, which means evidence is not sufficient for an evaluation yet.
  3. Zearalenone behaves like oestrogen, the female sex hormone, and could cause endocrine disturbances in humans. Its nasty effects in animals, such as pigs, are documented.
  4. When fed with mouldy corn, pigs develop inflamed vaginas, infertility and other symptoms.
  5. This is why countries like Brazil regulate zearalenone levels in animal feed.

Yet no cap of Regulation

  1. The FSSAI does not impose maximum limits for zearalenone, though the European Union (EU) does.
  2. Twenty-four of the U.P. samples exceeded the EU regulatory limits of 100-200 mcg/kg of cereals.
  3. Based on this, the authors say India should set limits on zearalenone in cereals.

Other Fungal toxins in Food

  1. Fungal toxins are commonly found in food, and can be a public health concern.
  2. India regulates the levels of some of these, including aflatoxin, deoxynivalenol, ergot and patulin.
  3. The first three infest cereals, while patulin is found in apples.
  4. Each of these toxins has been associated with disease outbreaks.

Impact of Fungal Toxins

  1. For example, in 1974, a hepatitis outbreak in Rajasthan and Gujarat, which made 398 people sick and killed 106, was linked to aflatoxin in maize.
  2. Meanwhile, chronic aflatoxin consumption has been shown to cause liver cancer.
  3. Given this, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies aflatoxin as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning there is enough evidence for its carcinogenicity.

Way Forward

  1. More data are needed from cereals in other States, and from other storage conditions, before India decides to set limits.
  2. Since zearalenone favours cool climates, such contamination could be limited to a few States.
  3. Regulations cannot be awaited till outbreak.
  4. The research is an excellent starting point, since nothing was known about the chemical in India so far.
Health Sector – UHC, National Health Policy, Family Planning, Health Insurance, etc.
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