Posted by: Green Knight | January 1, 2011

Aflatoxin and Dog Food

The fungi (molds, mildews, mushrooms, etc.) used to be thought of as plants without chlorophyll.  Relatively recent DNA studies have shown that they’re NOT plants, they’re an entirely separate order of life, actually more closely related to animals than plants, which is why fungal diseases are harder to treat, because what kills them kills us more readily as well.  There are harmful and beneficial ones…without the fungi we wouldn’t have wine, beer, bread, or cheese, and that’s a picnic lunch for ol’ BC!

Some years ago, when that rich Texas family got sick from mold in their new house, the story famously featured on “60 Minutes,” the insurance industry went nuts, and everybody was talking about that awful  “black mold.”  There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or millions, of species of fungi, many of which are black…they come in all colors, with a lot of overlap.  The one that freaked out the masses was Stachybotrys atra, aka Stachybotrys chartarum, the horrible “toxic black mold.”  The thing about “Stachy” is that it’s sticky…it’s difficult to dislodge spores and fragments by bumping into a bloom.  A substantially larger number of people die every year being exposed to various species of Aspergillum, another genus of mold/fungus, and an incredibly common one; it just doesn’t get as much publicity.

In fact, it’s aspergillus that I’m talking about this time.  Back in December of 2005, the Diamond Pet Food Company discovered that, at its facility in Gaston, South Carolina, corn that had been processed into a batch of its “Diamond,” “Country Value,” and “Professional” dog food brands was contaminated with aspergillus fungus and had potentially fatal amounts of Aflatoxin B1 in the food.  This prompted a recall of those products, which had been distributed to various wholesale and retail establishments east of the Mississippi River.  Over 100 dogs died of liver failure, and many more sustained permanent liver damage.  I’m writing this because I just heard that a new outbreak has occurred…I don’t have all the info yet, or know whose products are involved, but I’ll stay on it, being the animal-rescue guy that I am.

So what’s the deal?  Even dog food can be contaminated?  [Well, don’t forget all the food products contaminated with the plasticizer melamine, from our friends in China over the last few years, the same folks who keep sending us products laden with lead, which is banned here for the most part except for imports.]

Well, the fungi are good at producing antibiotics (anti = “against,” and biotic = “life.”)  Antibiotics kill harmful bacteria faster than they kill us, is all, until the bacteria develop a resistance to the antibiotics; fungi aren’t as fast to develop resistance to antifungals, but it happens — life is nothing if not resilient.  The funguses amonguses aren’t trying to kill us; they secrete those chemicals to discourage the competition of other microbes so as to protect their food sources, but some of those chemicals do a number on us mammals as well.  Unfortunately, Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus happen to produce various aflatoxins to do so. There are about 7 different aflatoxins out there, but it’s aflatoxin B1 that’s the worst, and the one I’m talking about here.  It is a hepatotoxin, meaning that it really does a number on the liver, and it’s also one of the few known human carcinogens, and about the most powerful and potent naturally-occurring cancer-causer in existence.  Aspergillus also grows on other grains, and on the surface of peanut shells.  Who knew? (well, that’s why I’m here.)

So how do we protect Fido, and Spike, and Jake (that was my dog so I put his name in here), when it’s a naturally-occurring substance?  This stuff grows, like all molds do, wherever the temperature and humidity are right for it.  Some molds like it cold, like on that cheese in the frig, or the science experiment way back in the freezer that’s been there since college.  Others like it warm.  You can’t have a mold-free environment; they’ve been here way longer than us.  You can keep growth to a minimum by managing temperature and moisture in your living environment, and by ventilation, and we can do it as a society by proper construction practices, which would’ve kept them Texans in better shape.

But as for dog food, well, if it’s in there, you won’t be able to tell.  The dry food won’t look moldy, because that all got taken care of in the processing, but the toxin is still present.  All we can do is ask the USDA for more help, because FDA is just there for human munchies.  Better and more frequent inspections of incoming loads of ingredients, and of storage and processing conditions, are what would help, but of course that means more efficient inspections, maybe more frequent inspections, possibly more inspectors, etc., which might (or might NOT) mean more taxes.

When I worked for electronics and wholesale art materials companies, and when I was an inspector for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, I helped to streamline operations…one time the DNR even asked me to help do that as part of a task force, but otherwise I just bugged the bosses or just did it myself and damn the torpedoes.  We need to remember that some people just use government jobs as a springboard to the private sector, and others are just not talented enough to work in the “real world,” but a few are there and STAY there because they actually give a damn about the mission, kind of like how it is for teachers.  Those are the ones to befriend and cultivate, because they’re a great source of help and info, and are grateful for the support and for the opportunity to do what they care about.  With proper motivation and internal reorganization, existing agencies can do a lot to do a better job even without a funding increase.  I worked for the Feds AND the State, and it ain’t easy, but it can be done, because I’ve helped do it…an involved public vs. a perpetually complaining public can work wonders.

Another solution, and better for the pets, is to make your own food for them.  I know folks who do that, and I haven’t been able to go there yet, logistically, but it’s in my eventual game plan (don’t forget that I have cats, and finicky = kitty. Wish me luck!).  Dr. Becker and Dr. Mercola have a good website that sometimes offers advice on how to whip up your own healthier homemade pet food, so give them a look.  Let’s make 2011 better for our furry companions!!!

P.S  don’t even get me started on ergot fungus and the tarantella; i’ll save that for a future post. Meanwhile, look at Dr. Bonnie Bassler’s video on bacteria, at  It’s not about fungi, but interesting stuff on microbes nonetheless, and Hot Sheet readers ought to like it…her teaching style is a lot like mine; she just talks faster because she’s excited. Enjoy!



  1. Fungi are a problem. They are the most common plant disease although not common among animals.

    We purchased some dry dog food that made our dogs seem sick. I had a colleague plate out several pieces. The result was that several fungi, including Aspergillum, known to produce toxins were present. We changed manufacturers. Probably the food had come in contact with excess moisture at some time producing ideal conditions for the growth of the fungi.

    Our German Shorthair Pointers recovered.

  2. I had a student with histoplasmosis, and he got quarantined at the airport because they thought it might be TB. I am very glad that your dogs recovered, Jim! You’d think that critters would be able to smell if food was “off” in some way, but if you read back to my posts on selenium poisoning, all that livestock that got the “blind staggers” and “alkali disease” didn’t notice the water or forage tasting bad, either. Luck of the draw, unfortunately.

  3. also, for folks who want to make their own pet food, check out The Honest Kitchen on Facebook! Tell ’em I sent ya.

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