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Nutrition, Animal Health

Science Steps In to Keep Toxin Out

More Options Lead to Fewer Losses for Producers

Science Steps In to Keep Toxin Out

Also called DON, vomitoxin is produced by Fusarium fungi that cause fusarium head blight in corn, wheat and barley. Vomitoxin can be toxic when inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or consumed at very low concentration levels, so that even small amounts may be harmful to humans and animals.

In pigs, vomitoxin at levels above 1 ppm (parts per million) may cause a reduction in feed intake and growth rate. These effects become even more pronounced at higher concentrations, leading to significant losses for producers. In response, researchers sought strategies for detoxifying vomitoxin using innovative chemical and biological approaches in post-weaning piglets.

For this project, the starting point was sodium metabisulfite (SMBS), an inorganic compound used as a disinfectant, antioxidant and preservative agent with certain food. Scientists already know that this compound can transform vomitoxin in vitro and reduce its toxicity, but what about adding it directly to the feed so it detoxifies DON in the piglet’s gut?

Water worries

One challenge with this approach is that SMBS is highly sensitive to moisture. When exposed to water in the body, it decomposes quickly to produce gas that upsets the stomach. As a means of protecting SMBS, researchers used different fats to create technologies that encapsulate the compound and produce microparticles that can be mixed with feed for consumption by the animals.

Based on their trial results, scientists may have solved the DON dilemma. To gauge how effectively SMBS neutralizes the impact of vomitoxin, they combined the chemical with DON-contaminated feed, fed it to post weaning piglets and monitored the results. Whereas such feed normally impairs or halts pig growth, the coated SMBS managed to reverse the negative effects on growth performance.

Protecting health and wealth

The results mean that the research team has proven the viability of their concept, that it is feasible to use encapsulation technology for effectively delivering SMBS as a detoxifying agent for swine production. This is an encouraging sign for producers and the industry, as vomitoxin is both a financial burden and a safety hazard.

Once the toxin is detected in pork, producers may be banned from exporting their products to other nations, depending on the concentration. While each country has its own limits, they are generally 1 ppm or less, and nowhere is the havoc wreaked by mycotoxins on Canadian pork sales more evident than in Japan. The country is our second largest export market, purchasing 264,635 tonnes of pork worth $1.3 billion in 2018. It is also one of the strictest nations on earth when it comes to mycotoxins, rejecting any food products with levels above 10 ppb (parts per billion). Consequently, anything that protects our pork will safeguard the bottom line for producers.

A coast to coast approach

A project that is addressing a worldwide issue and forging new technology is a huge undertaking with a lot of moving parts, and this study was no exception. Backed by funding from Swine Innovation Porc (SIP), Ontario Pork and Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the research team was comprised of members from across the country and spanned universities, government and research facilities.

AAFC in Guelph was well represented with research scientists Dr. Joshua Gong and Dr. Qi Wang, as well as Dr. Dion Lepp, biologist and manager of the Guelph Research and Development Centre’s genomics lab.

Participating from Quebec was Dr. Martin Mondor, research scientist with the Saint-Hyacinthe Research and Development Centre.

Out west, the University of Manitoba’s (U of M) Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences provided a number of collaborators: Dr. Chengbo Yang, associate professor, Department of Animal Science; and Dr. Song Liu, professor, Department of Biosystems Engineering.

While pleased with their progress thus far, the team plans to seek more funding to continue their research and examine how their findings hold up in a barn setting. While they can’t stop vomitoxin from sounding bad, they hope to make it a bit less scary in the years ahead.


Project Title:  Strategies for detoxifying vomitoxin using innovative chemical and biological approaches in post-weaning piglets

Lead(s)/Co-Lead(s): Dr.  Qi Wang (AAFC Guelph)

Key Investigators: Dr. Joshua Gong (AAFC Guelph), Dr. Chengbo Yang (University of Manitoba)

Budget: $123 263

Research Methods

As part of the team’s work to craft an encapsulating technology for SMBS, they used common granulation technology. The granulation process transforms fine powders into free-flowing, dust-free granules that are easy to compress.

The encapsulation process also involved electrospinning, a method that produces ultrafine fibres using a spinneret (a small metal cap or thimble with fine holes) under a high-voltage electric field.

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