A scientific research study held at the Nutrition Department at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Beirut Arab University in collaboration with the Italian CNR Institute of Sciences of Food Production revealed a wide spread of mycotoxins in the spices and herbs prevalent in the Lebanese market. Some of these toxins are carcinogenic with high risks to human health and affect food security and reduce the availability of safe food for the Lebanese citizens that consume contaminated spices and herbs as condiment of different types of food in Lebanon.

According to the World Health Organization, mycotoxins are natural toxins produced by some species of fungi or mold, and these toxins are secreted under such conditions as high temperatures and humidity caused by poor storage conditions.

The study was carried out in response to WHO's request to monitor and ensure the reduction of mycotoxins contamination in the food market and its compliance with international standards. It was conducted by Dr. Nada El Darra, a researcher at the Nutrition and Dietetics Department / Faculty of Health Sciences at Beirut Arab University, in collaboration with two Italian researchers, Dr. Lucia Gambacorta and Dr. Michele Solfrizzo, working at CNR-ISPA_in BARI (Italy). The results of this study were published in Food Control journal.

The study was conducted on 94 samples of spices and 38 samples of herbs imported from 15 countries and available in the Lebanese Market . The samples were analyzed at UPLCMS/MS laboratories in Italy for the following 12 fungal mycotoxins: AFB1, AFB2, AFG1, AFG2, OTA, FB1, FB2, HT-2 and T-2 toxins, ZEA, DON, NIV.

The study revealed that the exposure of the Lebanese to mycotoxins caused by spices and herbs is high, as 80% of the samples were contaminated at least with a mycotoxin and 40% contain more than one mycotoxin.

Some food industries in Lebanon rely on the HACCP system, a global system for risk analysis, critical control and preventive measures to prevent food contamination with biological, chemical or physical pollutants. The study collected 81 samples from companies and shops that implement the HACCP system and 51 from sources that do not apply the same system.

The comparison of both sources showed that good manufacturing and storage practices reduce the occurrence of regulated mycotoxins in spices and herbs, but was ineffective for the non-regulated ones, as they were subjected to less control. This confirms the need to develop proper HACCP specific for each class of mycotoxins.

The study draws attention to the regulations of the European Union, which set the limits of aflatoxins and ochratoxin A in some spices. The results show that 25-67% of five types of spices, namely allspices, red chili pepper, paprika, nutmeg fenugreek seeds, are contaminated with aflatoxin at levels exceeding the limits imposed by the European Union. As for herbs, 33-50% of rosemary, sage and oregano are contaminated with aflatoxin at levels higher the European limits set for spices, with quantities exceeding four to six times the European limits in rosemary and sagebrush. As for ochratoxin A, nutmeg is the only contaminated type of spices with amounts exceeding European limit.

The results of the tests of the mycotoxins not regulated in Europe showed that 90% of spices and 89% of the herbs are contaminated being the highest levels in onion and garlic powders as well as corn silk.

“The Lebanese authorities should set proper regulations and standards concerning the permissible levels of mycotoxins allowed in spices and herbs which must be verified by the Lebanese Standards Institution (LIBNOR) to ensure food safety and the continual export to global markets which follow precise specifications for mycotoxins. Such regulations and standards must be based on preventive measures to follow the principles of good agricultural and industrial practices and to ensure proper transportation and storage practices throughout all stages of the food chain,” said Dr. El Darra.

Beirut Arab University shall always seek to verify the safety of food in Lebanon through scientific studies that adopt international standards to reduce food contamination, prevent risks to consumers and develop scientific proposals for food production, transport and storage standards.

Reference: Food Control

Carcinogenic Mycotoxins in Spices and Herbs in Lebanese Markets