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Food Safety Focus (185th Issue, December 2021) – Article 3

Ergot Alkaloids in Food

The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) had recently released the report of a study on ergot alkaloids (EAs) in cereal and cereal-containing products in Hong Kong. EAs are fungal toxins that can be found in cereal grains like rye, sorghum, pearl millet, wheat, barley, etc. The EA-containing ergots, which are formed by the fungi on the cereals, can contaminate the grains if the ergots are harvested together with the grains. Unlike other fungal toxins, EAs only form before harvest and the level remains relatively constant during storage.

EAs can cause blood-vessel constriction and in severe cases intense pain, and subsequent gangrene with loss of fingers, hands, feet and even entire limbs as reported in historic records. The conditions are now rare, as sorting and milling processes have removed most of the ergots that affect the grains.

The CFS study found that 79% of the samples were not detected with EAs, and the mean levels of EAs detected in samples were generally lower than those of a European study in 2017. The CFS study revealed that the exposure to EAs causes no concern to the local population.