What are Ochratoxins?

Ochratoxins are a class of mycotoxins, or toxic substances, produced by certain molds. The primary types include Ochratoxin A, B, and C. Ochratoxin A is the most prevalent and of significant concern due to its toxicity. It consists of a phenylalanine molecule linked to a dihydroisocoumarin moiety, forming a complex structure that is soluble in organic solvents.

Historical Background

Ochratoxins were first identified in the 1960s and have been extensively researched for their toxicological properties. Their ubiquitous presence in various food products has led to increased scrutiny and regulation.

Mode of Action

Ochratoxins disrupt cellular metabolism, particularly in the kidneys and liver. They inhibit protein synthesis, induce oxidative stress, and interact with DNA, leading to potential mutagenic effects.

What Foods Can Be Contaminated?

High-Risk Categories

Ochratoxins are commonly found in a wide variety of foodstuffs. However, some foods are at a higher risk of contamination:

  • Cereals and Grains: Including wheat, barley, oats, and corn.
  • Coffee Beans: Both green and roasted.
  • Nuts and Oilseeds: Such as almonds, pistachios, and sunflower seeds.
  • Spices: Like black pepper and coriander.
  • Dried Fruits: Especially figs and raisins.
  • Meat: Particularly pork products, due to feed contamination.
  • Wine and Grape Juice: Derived from contaminated grapes.

Contamination During Processing

Processing methods can either reduce or exacerbate the levels of ochratoxins. For instance, the roasting of coffee beans can reduce ochratoxin levels, but not completely eliminate them.

Cross-Contamination Risks

Foods that are not initially prone to ochratoxin contamination may become tainted through cross-contamination during storage or transport with high-risk foods.

How Do Ochratoxins Affect Human Health?

Target Organs and Systems

The primary target of ochratoxin toxicity in humans is the kidney, but the liver, immune system, and even the nervous system can be affected. Ochratoxins have been implicated in a range of renal diseases, including Balkan endemic nephropathy.


Ochratoxin A has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Group 2B carcinogen, which means it is “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on sufficient evidence in animals but limited evidence in humans.

Reproductive and Developmental Toxicity

Exposure to ochratoxins during pregnancy can lead to adverse developmental effects in animal models, although definitive evidence in humans is lacking.

Neurological Effects

In animal studies, chronic exposure to ochratoxins has been linked to neurodegenerative changes, highlighting the importance of investigating its potential effects on the human nervous system.

How Common Is Illness?

Incidence in Humans

Quantifying the precise incidence of illness specifically due to ochratoxins is challenging due to their often sub-acute effects and potential synergism with other mycotoxins or health conditions. However, high levels of ochratoxin A have been detected in the blood of populations exposed to contaminated foodstuffs, suggesting that exposure is more common than previously assumed.

Geographic Distribution

Incidence rates of ochratoxin-related illness tend to be higher in regions where food storage conditions are suboptimal. Balkan endemic nephropathy, for instance, is concentrated in specific regions of the Balkan Peninsula where food contamination with ochratoxin A is high.

Animal Models

Animal studies have shown a strong correlation between ochratoxin A exposure and renal toxicity, which can be considered a potential proxy for human risk, albeit with the limitations that come with extrapolating animal data to humans.

Where Do Ochratoxins Come From?

Source of the Molds

The primary molds responsible for ochratoxin production are species of the genera Aspergillus and Penicillium. Specifically, Aspergillus ochraceus, Aspergillus carbonarius, and Penicillium verrucosum are the most notable ochratoxin-producing strains.

Agricultural Origin

The fungi that produce ochratoxins commonly contaminate crops in the field. Factors such as moisture content, temperature, and crop variety can influence the level of contamination.

Feed Contamination

In the case of meat products, especially pork, ochratoxin contamination often occurs through contaminated feed, which leads to bioaccumulation in animal tissues.

How Are Ochratoxins Affected by Environmental Factors?

Temperature and Humidity

High humidity and temperature facilitate the growth of ochratoxin-producing molds. For instance, a humidity level above 80% and a temperature range of 25–30°C are optimal for the growth of Aspergillus ochraceus.

Soil and Crop Health

Poor soil health can weaken crops, making them more susceptible to mold colonization. Crop rotation and the use of resistant varieties can help mitigate this risk.

Water Activity

Water activity in the food matrix also plays a crucial role. Foods with high water activity are more susceptible to fungal growth and subsequent ochratoxin production.

Light and Oxygen

Ochratoxin stability can be influenced by light and oxygen exposure. While the toxin is relatively stable, some degradation may occur with prolonged exposure to UV light.

How Can Ochratoxins Be Controlled?

Pre-harvest Control Measures

  • Crop Rotation and Resistant Varieties: Utilizing resistant crop varieties and rotating crops can reduce the susceptibility to ochratoxin-producing molds.
  • Biological Control: Certain microbial agents can inhibit the growth of ochratoxin-producing molds in the field.

Post-harvest Control Measures

  • Proper Drying: Ensuring that crops are adequately dried before storage can significantly reduce mold growth.
  • Storage Conditions: Maintaining low humidity and temperature in storage facilities can inhibit mold proliferation.

Food Processing

  • Detoxification: Methods like roasting and fermentation can reduce ochratoxin levels, although they cannot entirely eliminate the toxin.
  • Sorting and Grading: Removing visibly moldy or damaged portions from food batches can reduce ochratoxin levels.

Analytical Monitoring

Regular testing of food products for ochratoxin A levels is essential for quality control and public health safety. Techniques such as High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) are commonly used.

Are There Rules and Regulations?

International Guidelines

  • Codex Alimentarius: The Codex Alimentarius Commission provides international food standards and has set maximum allowable levels for ochratoxin A in certain foods, such as cereals.
  • European Union: The EU has stringent regulations, setting maximum levels for ochratoxin A in various food products, including spices and coffee.

United States Regulations

  • FDA: While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not established specific maximum levels for ochratoxin A, it does regulate mycotoxins in food under its action levels.

Other Countries

Various other countries have their national regulations, but these are often influenced by international guidelines.

Regulatory Challenges

One of the major challenges in regulating ochratoxins is the variability in contamination levels due to environmental and agricultural practices. Thus, a multi-pronged approach that encompasses pre-harvest, post-harvest, and processing stages is often recommended for effective control.

Penalties and Compliance

Non-compliance with ochratoxin regulations can result in recalls, fines, and even legal action. Hence, food industries are increasingly adopting hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) plans specific to mycotoxin management.

Resources and Further Readings

Ochratoxin A: General Overview and Actual Molecular Status

Ochratoxin A in Food – Centre for Food Safety

Impact of environmental factors on ochratoxin A

The Occurrence and Contamination Level of Ochratoxin A in Plant and Animal-Derived Food Commodities

Ochratoxin A and human health risk: A review of the evidence