Ergot in cereals

This publication details various control measures to reduce the risk from ergot in cereal crops. There is currently no EU legislation for maximum levels of ergot alkaloids but discussions in EFSA may result in future legislative limits.

Pathogen

Claviceps purpurea

Management

The fungus infects cereals during flowering and produces ergot sclerotia in place of grain. These structures contain ergot alkaloids that are highly toxic to humans and animals.

There is currently no EU legislation for minimum residue levels for ergot alkaloids but there are pending discussions in the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that may result in future legislative limits.

United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association (UKASTA) standards are 0.001% ergot by weight for feed grain and zero tolerance for all other grain. Buyers either reject contaminated grain or offer a reduced price. Maximum levels for ergot sclerotia are currently defined for both intervention and within the Codex standards at a level of 0.05%.

To reduce the risk from ergot in cereal crops:

  • Manage grass weeds, especially black-grass
  • Harvest field headlands and tramlines separately from the bulk of the crop
  • Plant a non-cereal crop or plough to ensure ergots are buried to at least 5cm depth
  • Avoid varieties with a long flowering period
  • Avoid sowing contaminated seed – clean farm-saved seed thoroughly to remove ergot

Research

How ergot alkaloids can move to apparently ‘clean’ grain has been revealed by recent research. Published by AHDB in 2019, the work found that the mycotoxins appear to move between flowers and can be detected in grain that appears clear of infection. It was also found that broken ergot sclerotia in harvested grain can be a potentially significant contamination source.

Determining the routes of transmission of ergot alkaloids in cereal grains (Project Report 603)

Ergot alkaloids under the spotlight

As the European Commission considers a limit on alkaloids, new AHDB-funded research is trying to find out how they’re able to find their way into sclerotia-free samples of grain. CPM takes a closer look.

Ergot alkaloids under the spotlight (CPM article, June 2018)