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CRC Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1979;11(4):311-54.

Ergot on cereal grains.


Ergot is caused by a fungus (Claviceps species) which has been found on hundreds of plants in almost every country of the world. The fungus can adapt itself to form many different varieties. New species of the fungus and new hosts are still discovered today. The alkaloids in ergot have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Middle Ages after consumption of contaminated cereal grains, but during the last two decades there has not been a recorded outbreak of ergotism. Grain standards in most countries are very strict and do not permit grain which contains ergot to reach commercial food channels. All involved in cereal grain production and ulilization should be cognizant of the potential danger, however, since ergot contamination at levels above those permitted by grain standards cannot necessarily be detected by the normal evaluation of a flour sample in the cereal chemistry laboratory. There always have been and always will be ergot infections and a possible danger to human health, but man has learned to minimize the potential problem by using proper agricultural practices. Futhermore, techniques for the removal of ergot from contaminated grains have been developed. While human ergotism is a disease of the past, ergotism in animals still occurs frequently. The problem is not a simple one because of many unanswered questions. What is the tolerance of different breeds or species of livestock to ergot? What are the effects of low-level long-term ingestion of ergot on livestock? What is the difference in toxicity to animals of ergot from different cereal ingestion of ergot on livestock? What is the difference in toxicity to animals of ergot from different cereal grain varieties? What is the effect of storage and processing of cereal grain products on the potential ergot toxicity? The last and most important chapter in the history of ergot concerns ergot as a source of pharmacologically useful alkaloids which have found applications in internal medicine and obstetrics. The future promises to bring some new ergot alkaloids and some new uses. Recent research data indicate the possibility of using ergot alkaloids in contraceptives, which would be truly remarkable.

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