Ptomaines & Mycotoxins

Ptomaines and mycotoxins from foodborne poisoning[1] can lead to serious illness resulting from the food spoilage of contaminated food, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that contaminate food,[2] as well as toxins such as poisonous mushrooms and various species of beans that have not been boiled for at least 10 minutes.

Symptoms vary depending on the cause, and are described below in this article. A few broad generalizations can be made, e.g.: The incubation period ranges from hours to days, depending on the cause and on how much was consumed. The incubation period tends to cause sufferers to not associate the symptoms with the item consumed, and so to cause sufferers to attribute the symptoms to gastroenteritis for example.

Symptoms often include vomiting, fever, and aches, and may include diarrhea. Bouts of vomiting can be repeated with an extended delay in between, because even if infected food was eliminated from the stomach in the first bout, microbes, like bacteria, (if applicable) can pass through the stomach into the intestine and begin to multiply. Some types of microbes stay in the intestine, some produce a toxin that is absorbed into the bloodstream, and some can directly invade deeper body tissues.

Foodborne illness usually arises from improper handling, preparation, or food storage. Good hygiene practices before, during, and after food preparation can reduce the chances of contracting an illness. There is a consensus in the public health community that regular hand-washing is one of the most effective defenses against the spread of foodborne illness. The action of monitoring food to ensure that it will not cause foodborne illness is known as food safety. Foodborne disease can also be caused by a large variety of toxins that affect the environment.[3]

Furthermore, foodborne illness can be caused by pesticides or medicines in food and natural toxic substances such as poisonous mushrooms or reef fish.


In 1883, the Italian, Professor Salmi, of Bologna, introduced the generic name ptomaine (from Greek ptōma, “fall, fallen body, corpse”) for alkaloids found in decaying animal and vegetable matter, especially (as reflected in their names) putrescine and cadaverine.[44] The 1892 Merck’s Bulletin stated, “We name such products of bacterial origin ptomaines; and the special alkaloid produced by the comma bacillus is variously named Cadaverine, Putrescine, etc.”[45] While The Lancet stated, “The chemical ferments produced in the system, the… ptomaines which may exercise so disastrous an influence.”[46] It is now known that the “disastrous… influence” is due to the direct action of bacteria and only slightly to the alkaloids. Thus, the use of the phrase “ptomaine poisoning” is now obsolete.

Tainted potato salad sickening hundreds at a Communist political convention in Massillon, Ohio,[47] and aboard a Washington DC cruise boat in separate incidents during a single week in 1932 drew national attention to the dangers of so-called “ptomaine poisoning” in the pages of the American news weekly, Time.[48] Another newspaper article from 1944 told of more than 150 persons being hospitalized in Chicago with ptomaine poisoning apparently from rice pudding served by a chain of restaurants.[49]


The term alimentary mycotoxicosis refers to the effect of poisoning by mycotoxins through food consumption. The term mycotoxin is usually reserved for the toxic chemical products produced by fungi that readily colonize crops. Mycotoxins sometimes have important effects on human and animal health. For example, an outbreak which occurred in the UK in 1960 caused the death of 100,000 turkeys which had consumed aflatoxin-contaminated peanut meal. In the USSR in World War II, 5,000 people died due to alimentary toxic aleukia (ALA).[17] The common foodborne Mycotoxins include:

Aflatoxins – originating from Aspergillus parasiticus and Aspergillus flavus. They are frequently found in tree nuts, peanuts, maize, sorghum and other oilseeds, including corn and cottonseeds. The pronounced forms of Aflatoxins are those of B1, B2, G1, and G2, amongst which Aflatoxin B1 predominantly targets the liver, which will result in necrosis, cirrhosis, and carcinoma.[18][19] In the US, the acceptable level of total aflatoxins in foods is less than 20 μg/kg, except for Aflatoxin M1 in milk, which should be less than 0.5 μg/kg.[20] The official document can be found at FDA’s website.[21][22]

Altertoxins – are those of alternariol (AOH), alternariol methyl ether (AME), altenuene (ALT), altertoxin-1 (ATX-1), tenuazonic acid (TeA), and radicinin (RAD), originating from Alternaria spp. Some of the toxins can be present in sorghum, ragi, wheat and tomatoes.[23][24][25] Some research has shown that the toxins can be easily cross-contaminated between grain commodities, suggesting that manufacturing and storage of grain commodities is a critical practice.[26]

Citrinin Citreoviridin Cyclopiazonic acid Cytochalasins Ergot alkaloids / ergopeptine alkaloids – ergotamine

Fumonisins – Crop corn can be easily contaminated by the fungi Fusarium moniliforme, and its fumonisin B1 will cause leukoencephalomalacia (LEM) in horses, pulmonary edema syndrome (PES) in pigs, liver cancer in rats and esophageal cancer in humans.[27][28] For human and animal health, both the FDA and the EC have regulated the content levels of toxins in food and animal feed.[29][30] Fusaric acid Fusarochromanone Kojic acid Lolitrem alkaloids

Ochratoxins – In Australia, The Limit of Reporting (LOR) level for ochratoxin A (OTA) analyses in 20th Australian Total Diet Survey was 1 µg/kg,[31] whereas the ECrestricts the content of OTA to 5 µg/kg in cereal commodities, 3 µg/kg in processed products and 10 µg/kg in dried vine fruits.[32]

Patulin – Currently, this toxin has been advisably regulated on fruit products. The EC and the FDA have limited it to under 50 µg/kg for fruit juice and fruit nectar, while limits of 25 µg/kg for solid-contained fruit products and 10 µg/kg for baby foods were specified by the EC.[32][33]

Tremorgenic mycotoxins – Five of them have been reported to be associated with molds found in fermented meats. These are fumitremorgen B, paxilline, penitrem A, verrucosidin, and verruculogen.[34]

Trichothecenes – sourced from Cephalosporium, Fusarium, Myrothecium, Stachybotrys, and Trichoderma. The toxins are usually found in molded maize, wheat, corn, peanuts and rice, or animal feed of hay and straw.[35][36] Four trichothecenes, T-2 toxin, HT-2 toxin, diacetoxyscirpenol (DAS), and deoxynivalenol (DON) have been most commonly encountered by humans and animals. The consequences of oral intake of, or dermal exposure to, the toxins will result in alimentary toxic aleukia, neutropenia, aplastic anemia, thrombocytopenia and/or skin irritation.[37][38][39] In 1993, the FDA issued a document for the content limits of DON in food and animal feed at an advisory level.[40] In 2003, US published a patent that is very promising for farmers to produce a trichothecene-resistant crop.[41]

Viral Infections

Viral infections make up perhaps one third of cases of food poisoning in developed countries. In the US, more than 50% of cases are viral and noroviruses are the most common foodborne illness, causing 57% of outbreaks in 2004. Foodborne viral infection are usually of intermediate (1–3 days) incubation period, causing illnesses which are self-limited in otherwise healthy individuals; they are similar to the bacterial forms described above. Below a few examples.

Enterovirus Hepatitis A is distinguished from other viral causes by its prolonged (2–6 week) incubation period and its ability to spread beyond the stomach and intestines into the liver. It often results in jaundice, or yellowing of the skin, but rarely leads to chronic liver dysfunction. The virus has been found to cause infection due to the consumption of fresh-cut produce which has fecal contamination.[42][43]

Most foodborne parasites are zoonoses.

Several foods can naturally contain toxins, many of which are not produced by bacteria. Plants in particular may be toxic; animals which are naturally poisonous to eat are rare. In evolutionary terms, animals can escape being eaten by fleeing; plants can use only passive defenses such as poisons and distasteful substances, for example capsaicin in chili peppers and pungent sulfur compounds in garlic and onions. Most animal poisons are not synthesised by the animal, but acquired by eating poisonous plants to which the animal is immune, or by bacterial action.

Some plants contain substances which are toxic in large doses, but have therapeutic properties in appropriate dosages. Foxglove contains cardiac glycosides. Poisonous hemlock (conium) has medicinal uses.


Bacteria are a common cause of foodborne illness. In the United Kingdom during 2000, the individual bacteria involved were the following: Campylobacter jejuni 77.3%, Salmonella 20.9%, Escherichia coli O157:H7 1.4%, and all others less than 0.56%.[4] In the past, bacterial infections were thought to be more prevalent because few places had the capability to test for norovirus and no active surveillance was being done for this particular agent. Toxins from bacterial infections are delayed because the bacteria need time to multiply. As a result, symptoms associated with intoxication are usually not seen until 12–72 hours or more after eating contaminated food. However, in some cases, such as Staphylococcal food poisoning, the onset of illness can be as soon as 30 minutes after ingesting contaminated food.[5]

Most common bacterial foodborne pathogens are: Campylobacter jejuni which can lead to secondary Guillain–Barré syndrome and periodontitis[6] Clostridium perfringens, the “cafeteria germ”[7] Salmonellaspp. – its S. typhimurium infection is caused by consumption of eggs or poultry that are not adequately cooked or by other interactive human-animal pathogens[8][9][10] Escherichia coli O157:H7 enterohemorrhagic (EHEC) which can cause hemolytic-uremic syndrome

Other common bacterial foodborne pathogens are: Bacillus cereusEscherichia coli, other virulence properties, such as enteroinvasive (EIEC), enteropathogenic (EPEC), enterotoxigenic (ETEC), enteroaggregative (EAEC or EAgEC)  Listeria monocytogenes Shigella spp. Staphylococcus aureus Staphylococcal enteritisStreptococcus Vibrio cholerae, including O1 and non-O1  Vibrio parahaemolyticus Vibrio vulnificus 


In addition to disease caused by direct bacterial infection, some foodborne illnesses are caused by enterotoxins (exotoxins targeting the intestines). Enterotoxins can produce illness even when the microbes that produced them have been killed. Symptom appearance varies with the toxin but may be rapid in onset, as in the case of enterotoxins of Staphylococcus aureus in which symptoms appear in one to six hours.[11] This causes intense vomiting including or not including diarrhea (resulting in staphylococcal enteritis), and staphylococcal enterotoxins (most commonly staphylococcal enterotoxin A but also including staphylococcal enterotoxin B) are the most commonly reported enterotoxins although cases of poisoning are likely underestimated.[12] It occurs mainly in cooked and processed foods due to competition with other biota in raw foods, and humans are the main cause of contamination as a substantial percentage of humans are persistent carriers of S. aureus.[12] The CDC has estimated about 240,000 cases per year in the United States.[13]

The rare but potentially deadly disease botulism occurs when the anaerobic bacterium Clostridium botulinum grows in improperly canned low-acid foods and produces botulin, a powerful paralytic toxin. Pseudoalteromonas tetraodonis, certain species of Pseudomonas and Vibrio, and some other bacteria, produce the lethal tetrodotoxin, which is present in the tissues of some living animal species rather than being a product of decomposition. Many foodborne illnesses remain poorly understood.


Prevention is mainly the role of the state, through the definition of strict rules of hygiene and a public services of veterinarysurveying of animal products in the food chain, from farming to the transformation industry and delivery (shops and restaurants). This regulation includes: traceability: in a final product, it must be possible to know the origin of the ingredients (originating farm, identification of the harvesting or of the animal) and where and when it was processed; the origin of the illness can thus be tracked and solved (and possibly penalized), and the final products can be removed from the sale if a problem is detected; enforcement of hygiene procedures such as HACCP and the “cold chain”; power of control and of law enforcement of veterinarians.

In August 2006, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved Phage therapy which involves spraying meat with viruses that infect bacteria, and thus preventing infection. This has raised concerns, because without mandatory labelling consumers would not be aware that meat and poultry products have been treated with the spray.[14]

At home, prevention mainly consists of good food safety practices. Many forms of bacterial poisoning can be prevented by cooking it sufficiently, and either eating it quickly or refrigerating it effectively.[2] Many toxins, however, are not destroyed by heat treatment.

Techniques that help prevent food borne illness in the kitchen are hand washing, rinsing produce,[15] preventing cross-contamination, proper storage, and maintaining cooking temperatures. In general, freezing or refrigerating prevents virtually all bacteria from growing, and heating food sufficiently kills parasites, viruses, and most bacteria. Bacteria grow most rapidly at the range of temperatures between 40 and 140 °F (4 and 60 °C), called the “danger zone”. Storing food below or above the “danger zone” can effectively limit the production of toxins. For storing leftovers, the food must be put in shallow containers for quick cooling and must be refrigerated within two hours. When food is reheated, it must reach an internal temperature of 165 °F (74 °C) or until hot or steaming to kill bacteria.[16]

The delay between the consumption of contaminated food and the appearance of the first symptoms of illness is called the incubation period. This ranges from hours to days (and rarely months or even years, such as in the case of listeriosis or bovine spongiform encephalopathy), depending on the agent, and on how much was consumed. If symptoms occur within one to six hours after eating the food, it suggests that it is caused by a bacterial toxin or a chemical rather than live bacteria. The long incubation period of many foodborne illnesses tends to cause sufferers to attribute their symptoms to gastroenteritis.

During the incubation period, microbes pass through the stomach into the intestine, attach to the cells lining the intestinal walls, and begin to multiply there. Some types of microbes stay in the intestine, some produce a toxin that is absorbed into the bloodstream, and some can directly invade the deeper body tissues. The symptoms produced depend on the type of microbe.[50]

The infectious dose is the amount of agent that must be consumed to give rise to symptoms of foodborne illness, and varies according to the agent and the consumer’s age and overall health. Pathogens vary in minimum infectious dose; for example, Shigella sonnei has a low estimated minimum dose of < 500 colony-forming units (CFU) while Staphylococcus aureus has a relatively high estimate.[51]

In the case of Salmonella a relatively large inoculum of 1 million to 1 billion organisms is necessary to produce symptoms in healthy human volunteers,[52] as Salmonellaeare very sensitive to acid. An unusually high stomach pH level (low acidity) greatly reduces the number of bacteria required to cause symptoms by a factor of between 10 and 100.

Asymptomatic subclinical infection may help spread these diseases, particularly Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, V. cholerae, and Yersinia.[51] For example, as of 1984 it was estimated that in the United States, 200,000 people were asymptomatic carriers of Salmonella.[51]

Globally, infants are a population that are especially vulnerable to foodborne disease. The World Health Organization has issued recommendations for the preparation, use and storage of prepared formulas. Breastfeeding remains the best preventative measure for protection of foodborne infections in infants.[53]

In 2001, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture to require meat packers to remove spinal cords before processing cattle carcasses for human consumption, a measure designed to lessen the risk of infection by variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. The petition was supported by the American Public Health Association, the Consumer Federation of America, the Government Accountability Project, the National Consumers League, and Safe Tables Our Priority.[71] This was opposed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Renderers Association, the National Meat Association, the Pork Producers Council, sheep raisers, milk producers, the Turkey Federation, and eight other organizations from the animal-derived food industry.[72]

None of the US Department of Health and Human Services targets[73] regarding incidence of foodborne infections were reached in 2007.[74]

A report issued in June 2018 by NBC’s Minneapolis station using research by both the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health concluded that foodborne illness is on the rise in the U.S.[75] The CDC has reported approximately four thousand cases of food poisoning annually in the last few years. Experts cite increased handling of food by humans as a major contributor, leading to outbreaks of parasites such as E. coli and cyclospora which can only come from human fecal matter.

The World Health Organization Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses (FOS) provides scientific advice for organizations and the public on issues concerning the safety of food. Its mission is to lower the burden of foodborne disease, thereby strengthening the health security and sustainable development of Member States. Foodborne and waterborne diarrhoeal diseases kill an estimated 2.2 million people annually, most of whom are children. WHO works closely with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to address food safety issues along the entire food production chain—from production to consumption—using new methods of risk analysis. These methods provide efficient, science-based tools to improve food safety, thereby benefiting both public health and economic development.

The International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN) is a joint program of the WHO and FAO. INFOSAN has been connecting national authorities from around the globe since 2004, with the goal of preventing the international spread of contaminated food and foodborne disease and strengthening food safety systems globally. This is done by:

Promoting the rapid exchange of information during food safety events;

Sharing information on important food safety issues of global interest;

Promoting partnership and collaboration between countries; and

Helping countries strengthen their capacity to manage food safety risks.

Membership to INFOSAN is voluntary, but is restricted to representatives from national and regional government authorities and requires an official letter of designation. INFOSAN seeks to reflect the multidisciplinary nature of food safety and promote intersectoral collaboration by requesting the designation of Focal Points in each of the respective national authorities with a stake in food safety, and a single Emergency Contact Point in the national authority with the responsibility for coordinating national food safety emergencies; countries choosing to be members of INFOSAN are committed to sharing information between their respective food safety authorities and other INFOSAN members. The operational definition of a food safety authority includes those authorities involved in: food policy; risk assessment; food control and management; food inspection services; foodborne disease surveillance and response; laboratory services for monitoring and surveillance of foods and foodborne diseases; and food safety information, education and communication across the farm-to-table continuum.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and The World Health Organization published have made a global ranking of food-borne parasites using a multicriteria ranking tool concluding that Taenia solium was the most relevant, followed by Echinococcus granulosus, Echinococcus multilocularis, and Toxoplasma gondii[76]. The same method was used regionally to rank the most important food-borne parasites in Europe ranking Echinococcus multilocularis of highest relevance, followed by Toxoplasma gondii and Trichinella spiralis[77].

Text under construction


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