A quality assurance scheme within the local animal feed trade is recognised by grain exporters all over the world, according to Robin Irvine from the NI Grain Trade Association.

“NI has reputation as not being a good place to land a load of dodgy grain,” Irvine said during a Guild of Agricultural Journalists event on Tuesday.

The Food Fortress programme has been operating for 10 years and involves testing animal feed for a wide range of potential contaminants.

“We are now covering 8m tonnes of finished feed every year. We have all the production in NI, about 70% of the production in the south, and a sizeable tonnage in Britain as well,” Irvine said.

The example was given of test results from animal feed samples last autumn when a small rise in levels of a mycotoxin known as deoxynivalenol, or DON, was detected.

Irvine pointed out that it was less than half the limit set under EU guidance for food safety, but the rise was still investigated as animal performance can be impacted at much lower levels.

Through the Food Fortress programme, the issue was traced back to a batch of imported distillers’ grains and the feed material was still able to be used with careful management.

Steps taken included reducing inclusion rates in diets, making use of mycotoxin binders, and ensuring the grain was not fed to intolerant animals such as broilers or young pigs.

“It was still well within contractual requirements, but by knowing what you have got, we can have proper mitigations and protect sensitive species to eliminate risk,” Irvine said.

Whilst Food Fortress gives assurance to farmers who buy animal feed, the key reason for setting up the scheme a decade ago was to provide integrity across the wider food supply chain.

Irvine highlighted the dioxin crisis in the Irish pig sector in 2008 and a mass recall of dairy products across Europe in 2013, with both incidents stemming from contaminated animal feed.

“Whilst animal feed is the first thing in the food chain, contaminants can move right through that chain to the finished product,” he said.

New technology

Looking to the future, the aim is to make use of new technologies to develop the Food Fortress programme further. Professor Chris Elliott from Queen’s University Belfast outlined how artificial intelligence can be used to help predict contamination risks so sampling and testing can be more targeted.

Technology which provides “fingerprinting” of animal feed can also be used to trace the origin of feed ingredients based on the chemistry of the soils where the crops were grown.

Elliott said this technique has another use in finding out if crops are grown on land that was previously rainforest.

“If it’s been deforested, there has been a lot of burning there, and you can pick up evidence of burning in the fingerprint,” he explained.

Risk of mycotoxins in animal feed increases

There is a growing risk of animal feed products being contaminated with mycotoxins, Professor Chris Elliott told reporters on Tuesday.

“Mycotoxins are products of fungi. There are fungi in 60-80% of all crops harvested across the world. Mycotoxins are not something you can get rid of. It is part of nature now,” he said.

Issues with feed quality arise when mycotoxins are present in high concentrations and they are “an anti-nutrient” because they negatively impact animal performance and increase the carbon footprint of production.

The range of different mycotoxins present in feed ingredients is also changing and issues are now arising with crops from regions where there was little trouble in past.

“As the climate warms, new fungi can grow in the northern hemisphere, and they will start to produce toxins.

“We are looking at a really big portfolio of testing now,” Elliott said.

Researchers at Queen’s have assessed different mycotoxin binders which are effectively feed additives that aim to reduce the effect of mycotoxins on animal performance.

“We found a massive difference in terms of the performance and quality of commercial binders. They also don’t bind all of the toxins. There are a lot of mycotoxins out there,” Elliott said.