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Aflatoxicosis: Food Poisoning Linked to an Increased Risk of Liver Cancer

Updated on September 22, 2013

Copyright 2012 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D.

New food safety standards on the maximum levels of certain toxins found to be acceptable in foods has recently been reevaluated and revised by a group called the "Codex Commission".

The Codex Commission (official named the Codex Alimentarius Commission) was formed back in 1963 and is a joint effort between the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Over the years, it's purpose has been to develop "international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice to protect the health of the consumers".

One of the newly revised standards released this year is on a toxin called:

  • Aflatoxin

Aflatoxins are toxins that are naturally occurring and are produced by fungus and they are a subgroup of a larger class of "mycotoxins" (fungal toxins).

Specifically, aflatoxins are produced by species from the genus Aspergillus. There are minimally 14 known types of this toxin and the two most common fungal species that produce these toxins are Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.

The food poisoning that results from ingestion of aflatoxins in contaminated food or feed is called "aflatoxicosis".


Foods Contaminated by Aflatoxin

Worldwide, a number of grains (e.g, corn, rice, and wheat) and nuts (e.g. peanuts, almonds, walnuts), seeds and spices can harbor the Aspergillus fungus and toxin.

In the United States, aflatoxins have been found in:

  • corn
  • corn products
  • peanuts
  • peanut products
  • cottonseed
  • milk
  • walnuts
  • pistashio nuts
  • Brazil nuts

In addition, commercially imported cooking oils (e.g, olive oil, etc.) and cosmetics have also been found to be contaminated.

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Food poisoning sends more than 100,000 people to the hospital each in the U.S. and it can be deadly. Learn how to prevent food poisoning and increase food safety both at home and when eating out.

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Aflatoxicosis and Liver Cancer

Research dating back as early as 1962 suggested that ingesting aflatoxins through food could lead to liver cancer over time.

In addition, population studies in the 1970s found that there was a strong correlation between dietary aflatoxins and liver cancer in Kenya but, at the time, the underlying mechanisms behind that correlation were unknown.

In the United States, outbreaks of aflatoxicosis in humans have not been reported and the frequency is really not known.

Cases of aflatoxicosis are not easily recognized and symptoms can often be misinterpreted or attributed to something else.

The good news is that this type of food poisoning is not transmissible (cannot be passed from human to human or animal to human).

The toxicity of aflatoxin can be influenced by:

  • environmental factors
  • exposure level
  • duration of exposure
  • age
  • overall health status (see new research below)
  • nutrition level in the diet

Of the 14 known types, Aflatoxin B1 is considered the most toxic and is now recognized as a potent carcinogen in humans as well as in many other species including: primates, birds, fish, and rodents.

Research Leads to New Food Safety Standards

Recently, researchers from The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health have shown that individuals who test positive for the hepatitis B virus and who are also exposed to aflatoxin in their diet have 60 times greater risk for developing liver cancer compared to those unexposed individuals.

This increased cancer risk is much greater than that observed in individuals exposed to either aflatoxin or hepatitis B virus alone.

With this new information, the Codex Commission recently agreed to limit the acceptable amounts of aflatoxins (and fungal spores) found in certain foods worldwide.

It is impossible to avoid this fungus and the toxin completely in many of these fresh foods (especially during rainy seasons). However, these food safety changes will hopefully lower exposure and help reduce the risk of liver cancer in third world countries and for those who have been exposed to Hepatitis B.

Additional References and Resources

  1. Peers and Linsell (1973) Br. J. Cancer (1973) Vol 27: 473
  3. Agricultural Research Service/USDA


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    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana

      @sweetie1 - thanks for stopping by. I was surprised by that too!

    • sweetie1 profile image

      sweetie1 4 years ago from India


      I knew food poisoning can cause lots of other problems like Gastric, liver and heart but never thought that it can also cause cancer. Very informative hub.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @Mama Kim 8 - I agree, it is a bit scary! I'm glad to see that there is more effort going into screening food sources.

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 5 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      Wow, thank you for spreading the word about this. And it would cover some of my favorite foods, too! Sheesh. Glad we have you to let us know about this. Great job!

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 5 years ago

      Very interesting, and a little scary. It's good to know the research is being done to help keep our food safer. Voted up and shared

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @Melis Ann and @Alicia C - thanks for your comments!

      @fpherj48 - you've made some very good points. Most American consumes are unaware of the safety (or lack there of) of some of our food sources and we all take for granted that if it's sold in a store, it's safe to eat. Sadly, limited resources only allow for limited safety testing both for whole foods and processed foods.

      At least the good news with this type of fungal food poisoning is that it would take repeated exposure over a period of time for it to lead to liver cancer.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for sharing this important and useful information about food safety, Kris.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      kris......Thank you so much for this valuable information. It appears we have more and more food items to add to the list, each day. It's a shame, but if we take heed of all the possible and/or actual dangers....we will be limited to a bare minimum of safe, healthy food & drink items.

      I am sure that 90% of the population of American consumers are unaware of most of these concerns. This is the type of info that must be gathered by our own efforts, since it is not widely & publicly announced....

      It seems to boil down to a simple question....."What exactly IS safe for us?"

      Again, I appreciate your work in providing us with this information. A smart consumer is an "informed" consumer.....Peace! UP++

    • Melis Ann profile image

      Melis Ann 5 years ago from Mom On A Health Hunt

      Once again Kris, I am learning something new from reading your hubs. I'm happy to hear that food safety changes will lead to better detection of aflatoxins as it seems there is no other way to avoid them in the products you mentioned. Sharing this info...

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @healthylife2 - it sounds like the fungus or toxin can survive roasting and processing - I say that based on the fact that it's been found in commercial peanut butter, some processed oils, etc.

      But the good news is that I did not see almonds or cashews on any of the lists I ran across on the USDA and FDA website. It might be that almonds and cashews are grown in less moist areas and not as susceptible to fungal infections.

      @RTalloni - thanks for stopping by!

    • healthylife2 profile image

      Healthy Life 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Very interesting information. Very helpful to learn about one more cause of cancer in order to minimize the risk. Are raw nuts more likely to harbor aflatoxins? I eat a lot of almonds and cashews and fortunately didn't see those on the list. Voted up and shared!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      Very interesting information. Thanks for a look at the potential aflatoxicosis has to cause liver cancer.