By Carey Gillam and Julie Ingwersen
(Reuters) - High levels of a dangerous toxin found in bagged dog food on a grocery store shelf in Iowa have highlighted the prevalence of a problematic mold in last year's U.S. corn crop, as state and federal officials work on limiting the food safety concern.
"Last year's corn crop - it is a huge issue. We test every load coming in. And we reject a lot of loads," said Michael Wright, chief executive officer of Pro-Pet, an Ohio-based pet food manufacturer that learned last week some of its product was tainted with aflatoxin, a naturally occurring poison that can cause serious illness or even death if consumed.
Aflatoxin is the byproduct of a mold that flourishes in dry conditions, and last year's historic drought in the U.S. Midwest put everyone from farmers to grain handlers and food industry officials on high alert.
"Anybody using corn has to be very selective," Wright said.
The problem hit home for the Hy-Vee Inc grocery chain when the company announced late Friday that it was recalling five different product lines of its privately branded dog food. The products, all manufactured by a Kansas City, Kansas, Pro-Pet plant, were recalled across eight Midwestern states due to elevated levels of the aflatoxin contaminant contained in the corn used to make the pet food, the company said.
Corn is a common ingredient for a range of pet foods and is a key feed grain for dairy and beef cattle, hogs, and chickens, as well as a range of products for human consumption.
The corn used in the Hy-Vee dog food had been tested before it was blended into the pet food and Pro-Pet officials said they tested finished products as well. But this contamination was not discovered until a random bag was pulled from a store shelf in Iowa by an inspector for the Iowa Department of Agriculture.
The sampling is part of a cooperative agreement that the Iowa Department of Agriculture forged with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as an added measure to protect against aflatoxin consumption, said Dustin Vande Hoef, a spokesman for the agriculture department in Iowa, the top U.S. corn-growing state.
Human exposure to high amounts of aflatoxin is rare. But aflatoxin contamination prompted a series of pet food and livestock food recalls in December 2011, including products produced at Cargill's Lecompte, Louisiana, plant and a Procter & Gamble Co plant in Henderson, North Carolina.
This year the toxin was much more prevalent. According to crop insurance data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, payouts for mycotoxins, of which aflatoxin is the most common, totaled nearly $75 million, triple the level of a year ago.
Nearly 85 percent of the claims were filed in six states: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri.
Mycotoxins are produced by fungi and can cause kidney and liver damage, suppress the immune system and disrupt absorption of nutrients, among other problems.
Hy-Vee spokeswoman Ruth Comer said the company was alarmed when it learned of the contamination last week, but the results are not surprising given the conditions.
"The toxin becomes more prevalent in a drought year," Comer said. "We had worse drought this past year than we've had in years, so it's not totally surprising that we have a bigger aflatoxin problem this year than in the past."
No pets have been reported to have suffered illness from the recalled products, Comer said.
Expectations for higher concentrations of aflatoxin were set even before the new bushels were harvested last fall. In September, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Nebraska received FDA approval to increase the amount of aflatoxin-afflicted corn that could be blended for animal feed. The FDA granted Iowa a similar request during droughts in 2003 and 2005 when aflatoxin was found in the state.
The blended corn must be clearly identified and labeled for animal feed use only, and allowable aflatoxin levels are limited depending upon usage.
The Iowa state agriculture department also is requiring the testing of all milk for aflatoxin, it said.
Pat Tovey, director of technology and regulatory compliance with the Pet Food Institute, whose members produce more than 7 million tonnes of pet food annually, said preventing aflatoxin contamination is a high priority for the industry.
"There is certainly more awareness this year," he said. "This is such a big issue in pet food."
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Julie Ingwersen in Chicago; Editing by Eric Walsh)