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June 29, 2022

Reducing the amount of spilled milk caused by a toxin

MSU researchers are identifying safe levels of aflatoxin M1 in milk

Researchers at Michigan State University have won a $750,000 grant from the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems to determine what level of aflatoxin M1 is safe to ingest from milk to prevent unnecessary waste.

Aflatoxins are a group of toxins produced by fungi (Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus) found in corn and tree nuts. Once a human or animal ingests aflatoxin B1, which is a known liver carcinogen, the body transforms the toxin into a metabolite (substance) called aflatoxin M1, or AFM1. AFM1 is secreted out of the body through urine or milk. While there are studies showing the link between aflatoxin B1 and liver cancer, the same studies do not exist for AFM1.

Felicia Wu, a John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor and an international expert on food safety in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at MSU, is leading the effort to learn how AFM1 in milk affects children’s health in Ethiopia. Wu’s research team consists of Derek Headey and Kalle Hirvonen of the International Food Policy Research Institute and Masresha Tessema of the Ethiopian Public Health Institute.

The U.S. standard for AFM1 toxicity is 0.5 micrograms per liter of milk, while countries like Ethiopia have adopted the much stricter European Union standard of 0.05 micrograms per liter of milk. The European Union standard for AFM1 can be extremely difficult for farmers to meet,” Wu said. “But that standard is not risk-based. There are no documented cases in the world of AFM1 causing cancer in humans.”

While adhering to the European Union standard, dairy farmers are dumping their milk and not drinking the milk at home. This affects the dairy farmers’ economy, causing farms to go out of business, and their family’s health, especially their children’s nutrition. What is yet unknown is: even if AFM1 has negligible cancer risk, does AFM1 have other harmful impacts on children’s health?

To identify a safe level of AFM1, Wu and her team will work with researchers, nurses and enumerators to survey 1,000 dairy-producing households with young children in Ethiopia. Samples of milk and corn from each farm will be tested to measure the level of AFM1. The researchers will also gather information on how much AFM1 the children in the family are ingesting and will track the children’s height and weight over a period of 18 months to see if these levels are impacting their health.

Our goal is to provide sound science on the health effects of AFM1 to help policymakers set reasonable safety standards on AFM1 in milk and other dairy products. We also want to inform any risk-benefit communications to the general public,” Wu said. “First in Ethiopia, and then beyond.”

For more information: Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems

The project’s full title is: Aflatoxin M1 health risks vs. benefits of dairy consumption in Ethiopian children: an epidemio­logical trial and risk-benefit analysis

By: Emilie Lorditch