Harvester's Digest: Maximizing Your Options as the 2012 Harvest Approaches  

Carrie Maune

September 15, 2012

As we face harvest after the worst drought in recent history, being prepared to handle mycotoxin contamination is crucial.

This damage to the corn crop has already happened. Now, the waiting begins to see how much toxin contamination will be present in the crop, and where mycotoxin levels are the most extreme.

Several things happened with the 2012 corn crop. First, many areas that are experiencing the most severe drought also experienced a mild winter. This resulted in corn planting taking place several weeks, or in some cases two months early. Because of the larger planting window, corn maturation also took place over a wide window of time. Second, because the drought hit early in the crop year and has been both widespread with little relief in precipitation and hit many areas at critical pollination time, contamination will be widespread. Crops that went in early and crops that went in later will both be affected. Unfortunately, as of the end of July the U.S. corn crop has deteriorated to less than 25% in good to excellent shape, and that number is falling weekly.

The following crop strategies will help minimize the impact of mycotoxins as much as possible.

Maximize everything in your control. Damage to the crop is done and cannot be changed. How your facility approaches harvest management from this point on can impact the outcome. Make sure that anything in your control is reviewed, revised, implemented, documented, and maximized to the fullest potential.

  • Review and Adjust Incoming Purchasing Criteria
    This year may be a year where each quality aspect needs to be reviewed and adjusted for any “wiggle room” possible. What are the maximum limits of toxins your facility can tolerate? Is your acceptance criteria reflective of that? Can you accept anything over that criteria? Do you have segregation capabilities? Do you have options to set new dockage criteria? Can you source elsewhere? Are you locked into corn for your process?
  • Consider Purchase Price
    Corn prices this year will be high. You don’t want to be in a situation to pay top prices for quality corn and then determine after purchase that the product was contaminated or that you purchased contaminated grain at levels that are too high for your final use. Poor purchasing this year will be more costly than any year in recent history. With that in mind, if you have the ability to dock for toxin contamination at specific levels, review this criteria and then make absolutely sure your testing program can deliver accurate results. Review your quality system to make sure you are comfortable with your action levels. Remember that all results have a range. Mycotoxin results are not concrete numbers and have a range that is associated with every result based on sampling, subsampling and analytical variability. Get some background on both your internal testing procedures and your external testing laboratory to determine what the uncertainty range or “variability” associated with each test may be. Consider this when setting any new action levels for your facility.
  • Evaluate Sampling Practices
    Sampling is the most critical piece of mycotoxin testing. It contributes the most variability to any mycotoxin result. Be certain that you have a sampling program in place that addresses your commodity, your vessel sizes, your probing capabilities, sample size to be probed and your staff. The best testing system in the world is not going to detect toxins in a sample that has not be collected and prepared properly. There are many, many resources available for sampling corn for mycotoxins. Review all pertinent information and then design a sampling plan to meet your specific needs. Educate your staff thoroughly.
  • Proper Sample Preparation
    Sample preparation includes grinding a large sample (make sure to grind all of the sample) to a fine mesh size and then getting a good mixture of all the particles. Check your grinder now. Make any adjustments, purchase new burr sets or other parts to maintain grind size and speed. Remember, only 1 in every 200 kernels of corn may be contaminated with toxins. It is critical to the sample results to make sure that you get fine particles of enough kernels to generate an accurate answer. Additionally, look at the extraction procedure that you are utilizing. If you need to blend the sample, don’t shortchange the blend time or speed. Again, if the toxin doesn’t transfer from the corn to the liquid the test is not going to detect it. Check your grinding capabilities including final grind size and how much total sample you will grind. Review your extraction procedures and make sure equipment is ready to go and able to provide good extraction efficiency. It is completely counterproductive to carefully probe 10 to 20 pounds of corn and then take a handful off the top for mycotoxin testing. Proper sample preparation is key to accurate results.
  • Mycotoxin Testing
    If you test on site, make sure that your testing system is providing accurate results. Utilize known samples for training. Insure all technicians that will be running tests have documented training with known samples. This provides documentation in case your quality is ever questioned, and also gives technicians confidence in their techniques. Enroll technicians in proficiency testing programs that include blind samples. These will also document your quality system if your product quality is ever questioned. Confirm accuracy of each run by setting acceptance criteria using known samples as the baseline. Get information about your contract laboratory for samples you are sending out for testing. Get turnaround time expectations and pricing information. Find out what method the lab is using. Don’t have results confirmed with the same method that you are using internally. If you are using on site kits have results confirmed by chromatography methods. Make certain that the laboratory is ISO 17025 accredited and that the testing that you are requesting is in their ISO scope of expertise. Ask if they participate in proficiency testing, make sure you have confidence in their results; in the end these results are your results as well if your quality is questioned.
  • Education
    Never underestimate this aspect. This is an extremely easy piece of the overall harvest management plan. The more information you can successfully convey on your total approach to the harvest, the better the system will flow. When staff understands why the requirements are being requested, they will have an understanding of both importance and how to address any out of specification situations. Begin training for ALL staff members who will be dealing with mycotoxin related issues. This includes everyone from purchasing to upper management, to staff who will be sampling and testing. By understanding the concepts and working together to manage areas that can be managed, your facility will have a much better shot at minimizing your exposure and ultimate risk that is associated with mycotoxin contamination commodities.
  • Documentation
    If you do not have a solid documentation system in place, this is the year to begin. In these high toxin contamination years, it is even more critical that your quality system surrounding toxin testing is documented. Make sure that SOPs are up to date. Ensure that when results or other incoming criteria fall out of spec, that everyone knows the correct procedures. Many toxins have entered facilities simply because the specifications were not known. Document training, responsibilities, and corrective actions. These will help keep your system running when harvest hits and there is less time to devote to the processes that should already be in place.

2012 Crop Harvest Outlook

This harvest will be different for facilities in specific areas of the country. For instance, in Michigan only 100 miles may separate good corn from poor quality corn. Those instances can be more challenging that when the crop is generally poor throughout the purchasing region. Here are some Corp scenarios and proactive suggestions on how to best handle the incoming crop. 

High incidence of high-level Aflatoxin in corn – or high levels of Fumonisim in corn, or both depending on location and crop sources.

To best prepare for this type of harvest, prepare in this manner:

  • Review in detail your specifications for acceptance of incoming products. Understand that this year’s crop may not meet the criteria that you have in place.
  • If possible, look for a variety of sources of raw materials. Some areas of the country may have other options for your specific raw material.
  • Obtain pre-shipment samples of anything in the area that you are considering purchasing.
  • Review all your sampling procedures and update when needed.
  • Train on sampling procedures. If the individuals who are sampling do not understand why they are sampling vessels in a specific manner, or if sampling procedures are not enforced, analytical results will be incorrect. 
  • If you perform in-house testing, select the individuals that will be doing the testing and make sure there is a refresher training course if needed. Use known samples, such at Trilogy's Quality Control Materials, to determine their precision and accuracy on the specific method you are running.
  • Enroll individuals in a check sample program to maintain quality records on both their training and on their proficiency.
  • Test every load. This harvest with high incidence of Aflatoxin or Fumonisin in the corn crop is critical that every load is tested. Run daily checks on your system to ensure that each run is accurate.
  • To add quality to your total testing system send scheduled samples to an outside lab to confirm your results and/or check suspect results. Make sure and retain documentation in case quality is ever questioned.

Low to medium incidence of high level Aflatoxin in corn or low to medium incidence of high level Fumonisin in corn.

This harvest is probably harder to prepare for that the harvest where everything is high level contamination. In this harvest it is easy to “miss” an extremely high level of product coming into your facility.

To best prepare for this type of harvest, prepare in this manner:

  • With this harvest prepare as in the previous harvest – however it is essential that a daily check is done to make sure that each day’s results are included in a run that is acceptable. High levels make their way into a facility in three ways. Improper sampling, improper sample prep, accepting incorrect results.
  • This harvest has the possibility of having this effect in areas where crop will be mixing with areas that have had both drought and rain in spotty areas. This is probably one of the worst situations, because it may be easy to underestimate the potential for very high levels of toxin coming through your system randomly – not consistently.
  • To add quality to your total testing system, send scheduled samples to an outside lab for chromatographic analysis to confirm your results and/or check suspect results. Make sure and retain documentation in case quality is ever in question.

High incidence of low or moderate levels of Aflatoxin and /or Fumonisn in corn.

For some of the areas (perhaps northern growing areas not as severely affected by drought) this could be a year of high incidence and simply moderate levels of toxins depending on the growing conditions and how the crop continues to develop in relation to your specific growing conditions. With the amount of heat the entire US has had this year, there will be levels of toxins out there. It could be that these levels in some areas that are not affected as dramatically by the drought that toxin levels will be low to moderate – however they may very likely be widespread.

To best prepare for this type of harvest, prepare in this manner:

  • Review your sampling procedures and update those procedures when needed.
  • Make certain your staff has the background and training. If the individuals who are sampling do not understand why they are sampling vessels in a specific manner, or if sampling procedures are not enforced, analytical results will be incorrect.
  • If you perform in house testing, select the individuals that will be doing the testing and make sure there is a refresher training course if needed. Use known samples to determine their precision and accuracy on the specific method you are running.
  • Enroll individuals in a check sample program to maintain quality records on both their training and then on their proficiency.
  • Test every load until you have good handle on the degree of crop contamination.
  • Enrolling technicians in proficiency testing and daily checks that are run will add validity to the process as well.

 Low incidence of low levels of Aflatoxins and/or Fumonisins in corn.

This harvest season, most of the growing area will not fit into this scenario. This may be found in areas where crop conditions have been good but have experienced a warmer than usual growing season. For these types of conditions, however, begin the crop year doing baseline testing to determine what the average contamination level is going to be “across the board”. This just means that you can get an indicator or what potentially is out there. After you have confidence that the crop is going to be overall in good shape. Continue testing as per your protocol for acceptance. At the minimum test periodically to ensure good documentation in case quality is ever questioned.

Typically, in a year where you have low incidence and low levels, the crop is great but occasionally you will have toxins that show up. For the most part the 2012 wheat crop was an example of this overall an excellent crop, however you could still find low levels of DON in samples during the crop year.


The 2012 crop harvest poses numerous challenges, with mycotoxins being just one of them. Take proactive measures to maximize control and readiness for the upcoming corn harvest.

About Trilogy

Trilogy is a food and feed safety laboratory specializing in mycotoxins, mycotoxin binder analysis, biogenic amines and animal drug residue testing. Trilogy Analytical Laboratory opened its doors in 1999 when its founders recognized a need in the mycotoxin industry for quick result turn-around utilizing reliable reference methods provided in an analytical setting. One of the main pillars of Trilogy’s strategy is to operate using a comprehensive quality program that we can rely on to ensure performance parameters are met every single time. From this philosophy the Trilogy line of quality products was born with the mycotoxin industry in mind.

Media Contact: Lynette Hischier, l.hischier@trilogylab.com