Exclusive: Vomitoxin makes nasty appearance for U.S. farm sector

FILE PHOTO -- Cobs of corn are held at a corn field in in La Paloma city, Canindeyu, about 348km (216 miles) northeast of Asuncion August 7, 2012. Corn export is second only to soybean export in Paraguay. REUTERS/Jorge Adorno/File Photo

By P.J. Huffstutter and Michael Hirtzer

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A fungus that causes “vomitoxin” has been found in some U.S. corn harvested last year, forcing poultry and pork farmers to test their grain, and giving headaches to grain growers already wrestling with massive supplies and low prices.

The plant toxin sickens livestock and can also make humans and pets fall ill.

The appearance of vomitoxin and other toxins produced by fungi is affecting ethanol markets and prompting grain processors to seek alternative sources of feed supplies.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture first isolated the toxin in 1973 after an unusually wet winter in the Midwest. The compound was given what researchers described as the “trivial name” vomitoxin because pigs were refusing to eat the infected corn or vomiting after consuming it. The U.S. Corn Belt had earlier outbreaks of infection from the toxin in 1966 and 1928.

A vessel carrying a shipment of corn from Paraguay is due next month at a North Carolina port used by Smithfield Foods Inc [SFII.UL], the world’s largest pork producer.

The spread of vomitoxin is concentrated in Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and parts of Iowa and Michigan, and its full impact is not yet known, according to state officials and data gathered by food testing firm Neogen Corp.

In Indiana, 40 of 92 counties had at least one load of corn harvested last fall that has tested positive for vomitoxin, according to the Office of Indiana State Chemist’s county survey. In 2015 and 2014, no more than four counties saw grain affected by the fungus.

And in a “considerable” share of corn crops tested in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana since last fall’s harvest, the vomitoxin levels have tested high enough to be considered too toxic for humans, pets, hogs, chickens and dairy cattle, according to public and private data compiled by Neogen. The company did not state what percent of each state’s corn crop was tested.

Smithfield would not confirm it had ordered the corn from Paraguay, but two independent grain trading sources said Smithfield was the likely buyer. A company source said corn Smithfield has brought in from Indiana and Ohio, to feed pigs in North Carolina, has been “horrible quality” due to the presence of mycotoxins.

TOXIN LEVELS

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows vomitoxin levels of up to 1 part per million (ppm) in human and pet foods and recommends levels under 5 ppm in grain for hogs, 10 ppm for chickens and dairy cattle. Beef cattle can withstand toxin levels up to 30 ppm.

Alltech Inc, a Kentucky-based feed supplement company, said 73 percent of feed samples it has tested this year have vomitoxin. The company analyzed samples sent by farmers whose animals have fallen ill.

“We know there is lots of bad corn out there, because corn byproducts keep getting worse,” said Max Hawkins, a nutritionist with Alltech.

Neogen, which sells grain testing supplies, reported a 29 percent jump in global sales for toxin tests – with strong demand for vomitoxin tests – in their fiscal third quarter, ending Feb. 28.

“We’re polling our customers and continually talking to them about the levels they’re seeing. Those levels are not going down,” said Pat Frasco, director of sales for Neogen’s milling, grain and pet food business.

The problem, stemming from heavy rain before and during the 2016 harvest, prompted farmers to store wet grain, said farmers, ethanol makers and grain inspectors.

The issue was compounded by farmers and grain elevators storing corn on the ground and other improvised spaces, sometimes covering the grain piles with plastic tarps. Grain buyers say they will have a clearer picture of the problem later this spring, as more farm-stored grain is moved to market.

Iowa State University grain quality expert Charles Hurburgh said the sheer size of the harvest in 2016 – the largest in U.S. history – complicates the job of managing toxins in grain, especially in the core Midwest.

“Mycotoxins are very hard to handle in high volume,” he said. “You can’t test every truckload, or if you do, you are only going to unload 20 trucks in a day.” By comparison, corn processors in Iowa unload 400 or more trucks a day.

BIOFUEL IMPACTS

Ethanol makers already are feeling the impact. Turning corn into ethanol creates a byproduct called distillers dried grains (DDGs), which is sold as animal feed. With fuel prices low, the DDGs can boost profitability.

But the refining process triples the concentration of mycotoxins, making the feed byproduct less attractive. DDG prices in Indiana fell to $92.50 per ton in February, the lowest since 2009, and now are selling for $97.50 per ton, according to USDA.

Many ethanol plants are testing nearly every load of corn they receive for the presence of vomitoxin, said Indiana grain inspector Doug Titus, whose company has labs at The Andersons Inc, a grain handler, and energy company Valero Energy sites.

The Andersons in a February call with analysts said vomitoxin has hurt results at three of its refineries in the eastern U.S. “That will be with us for some time,” Andersons’ chief executive Pat Bowe said.

Missouri grain farmer Doug Roth, who put grain into storage after last year’s wet harvest, has seen a few loads of corn rejected by clients who make pet food after the grain tested positive for low levels of fumonisin, a type of mycotoxin.

Roth said he paid to reroute the grain to livestock producers in Arkansas, who planned to blend it with unaffected grain in order to mitigate the effect of the toxins.

“As long as this doesn’t become a widespread problem, we’re all fine,” said Roth, who said toxins have shown up in less than 1 percent of the grain loads he has sold.

U.S. farmers with clean corn are reaping a price bump. A Cardinal Ethanol plant in Union City, Indiana, is offering grain sellers a 10-cent per bushel premium for corn with less than one-part-per-million (ppm) or less of vomitoxin in it, according to the company’s website.

(Additional reporting by Karl Plume and Julie Ingwersen in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Charities slam Calais ban that could halt food aid for migrants

An aid worker provides assistance near a group of migrants claiming to be minors who use blankets to protect themselves from the cold as they prepare to spend the night after the dismantlement of the "Jungle" camp in Calais, France, October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Matthias Blamont and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) – Charities expressed outrage on Friday as the mayor of French port Calais, which has symbolized Europe’s refugee crisis, signed a ban on gatherings that could stop aid groups distributing meals to migrants and refugees.

A decree published on Thursday said the Calais authority believed that handing out meals at the site of the former “jungle” migrant camp was one reason for a rise in ethnic tensions and conflict between rival groups of migrants.

The decree, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, said food distribution by charities had led to large numbers of people gathering at the site of the now-closed camp, with fights breaking out and risks posed to the safety of local residents.

It did not expressly ban food distribution, but said it was “necessary to ban all gatherings” at the site and banned people from entering it. The decree said gatherings tended to take place “after the distribution of meals to migrants”.

Migrants have been streaming into Calais for much of the last decade, hoping to cross the short stretch of sea to Britain by leaping onto trucks and trains, or even walking through the railway tunnel under the English Channel.

Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart, a member of conservative party The Republicans who signed the decree, defended her decision on the grounds of public safety and the damage to the local Calais economy caused by the refugee problem.

In a statement, Bouchart said it was also up to the national government to deal with the problem, and that she had always sought to act with “humanity” towards the refugees.

But human rights groups criticized the move, with some saying they would still hand out food to migrants and refugees.

“You’re talking about young people and children. You just can’t deprive them of food,” said Gael Manzi, who works for local aid association Utopia 56.

Manzi said Utopia 56 would continue to distribute food, but at a new site elsewhere in Calais.

Last month, non-government associations said hundreds of migrant children had been returning to Calais, despite the dismantling of the “jungle” camp late last year.

The influx of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa is a key issue in France’s upcoming presidential election, with many voters concerned about competition for scarce jobs, security, and the risk of further terror attacks.

Police forces are still deployed permanently in the area where the “jungle” camp stood.

(Reporting by Matthias Blamont and Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Andrew Callus and Catherine Evans)

Spanish lettuce shortage likely to continue into March, say farmers

iceberg lettuce farm

By Emma Pinedo and Francisco Bonilla

LOS ALCAZARES, Spain (Reuters) – A shortage of iceberg lettuce is likely to continue into March, Spanish farmers say, because freak weather conditions in the south of the country early in the agricultural year prevented the planting of seedlings to replace ruined crops.

The southern region of Murcia, where most Spanish lettuce grown for export is cultivated, suffered the worst floods in two decades followed by its first snow storm in over 30 years in December and January.

“This has been extraordinary, it’s not normal to have so many problems at once,” said Jose Antonio Canovas, a farmer and salesman in Murcia for Kernel Export, which grows, packages and delivers a range of vegetables from cauliflower to broccoli.

The ruined harvest and subsequent shortage of produce has led some British supermarkets like Tesco <TSCO.L> and Sainsbury <SBRY.L> to ration iceberg lettuces to three per visit. The limited supply follows a shortage of courgettes in Britain and supplies of broccoli and aubergines have also been affected.

Vegetable production in the European Union has fallen to 60 percent of normal levels in recent weeks due to bad weather affecting producers across the Mediterranean, from Greece to Spain, Spanish exporters say. Spain accounts for around half of EU vegetable exports.

Not only did floods and snow ruin crops, leaving lettuces ready for harvest withered and battered in the fields, but the bad weather prevented the planting of polytunnel-grown seedlings which meant more delays to the next harvest of Spain’s biggest fruit and vegetable export after tomatoes.

“We have notified our customers that there may be production delays in March because the planting of seedlings has been delayed and in the rush to supply the market some crops were picked ahead of time,” said Fernando Gomez, general manager of The Murcian Federation of Producers and Exporters of Fruit and Vegetables (Proexport).

The production of lettuces, one of the most badly affected crops, has fallen by up to a third in the peak winter months of production when Spain harvests over 100,000 tonnes of the 700,000 tonnes it exports annually.

Production is likely to return to normal by the end of March or the beginning of April, Proexport’s Gomez said.

Many farmers in the area do not insure their crops. In a sector with very slim profit margins of between 1.5 and 4 percent, profit relies on big volumes. Higher prices have not made up for the losses farmers have suffered.

Alongside the hit from ruined crops, the hiring of specialized labor to work the flooded and frozen fields has also eaten into profit margins at farms.

(Writing by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Angus Berwick and Adrian Croft)

Peru to give visas to thousands of crisis-weary Venezuelans

Peru's president in press conference saying venezuelans will get visas

LIMA (Reuters) – Peru has created a temporary visa that will allow thousands of Venezuelans to work and study in the country, part of a migratory policy that aims to “build bridges” and “not walls,” the Andean nation’s interior ministry said.

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s government issued 20 temporary visas to Venezuelan migrants in Peru this week. Kuczysnki, a centrist, has expressed concern about shortages of food and medicine in Venezuela, mired in a deep economic crisis.

Some 6,000 Venezuelans are expected to receive the permit, which will allow them to study, work and receive health services in Peru for a year, the interior ministry said late on Thursday.

Peru has enjoyed nearly two decades of uninterrupted economic growth and single-digit inflation, a sharp contrast to socialist-led Venezuela, where the ranks of the poor have swollen in recent years.

“We want to offer a different message on migration than what’s offered in other places. We want to build bridges that unite us and not walls to separate us,” Interior Minister Carlos Basombrio said in a statement.

The comment appeared to be a thinly veiled shot at the new U.S. government, which is traditionally an ally of Peru.

U.S. President Donald Trump has imposed a temporary entry ban on refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, and insisted that Mexico will pay for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to curb illegal immigration.

Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker and free-trade advocate who took office last year, has previously compared Trump’s proposed border wall to the Berlin Wall, and said he would oppose it in the United Nations.

Kuczynski and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said last week that they would stand with Mexico and seek to strengthen regional trade, in the wake of rising tensions between Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Trump.

(Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Paul Simao)

Sudan to end fuel, food subsidies by 2019: minister

street vendor in Sudan

By Khalid Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan plans to end all subsidies on food and fuel by 2019 and forecasts the lifting of U.S. sanctions will earn its hard currency-starved economy $4 billion per year in remittances, Minister of State for Finance Magdi Hassan Yasin said on Monday.

In the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency, Washington announced plans to lift a 20-year-old trade embargo, unfreeze assets and remove financial sanctions in response to Khartoum’s cooperation in fighting Islamic State and other groups.

The sanctions relief will come in six months if Sudan takes further steps to improve its human rights record and takes steps to resolve military conflicts, including in Darfur.

Even so, Sudanese officials are already looking beyond the sanctions regime.

“The lifting of American sanctions is a turning point for the Sudanese economy,” Yasin, a junior minister, said in an interview.

The path may not be smooth. On Saturday, Sudan’s foreign ministry called President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban on citizens from seven countries, including Sudan, “very unfortunate”.

If there is no extension, the three-month restriction on Sudanese citizens entering the United States would be over by the time the trade embargo and financial sanctions are removed.

Even so, it is unclear if the tougher immigration rules promised by Trump might impact on trade relations between the two countries.

END OF SUBSIDIES

Sudan’s economy has struggled since South Sudan seceded in 2011, taking with it three-quarters of the country’s oil output and much of Khartoum’s foreign currency and government revenue.

Sudan in November cut fuel and electricity subsidies and announced import restrictions to save scarce foreign currency. Yasin said the government targets scrapping these subsidies entirely by 2019.

“Distortions will be removed from the economy with the total cancellation of consumption subsidies,” Yasin said. “That includes for fuel, electricity, and imported wheat.”

Yasin said the government was considering legislation allowing foreign companies to invest in electricity infrastructure and production for the first time. Huge swathes of rural Sudan have never been connected to the national grid.

“Sudan only produces 34 percent of its electricity needs, so the door will be open for investment in this field, especially after U.S. sanctions are lifted,” he said.

Khartoum has already said it will review its monetary and exchange rate policies once the U.S. sanctions are lifted to lure new foreign investment.

The potential for increased trade and investment flows is already reflecting in the real economy, with the Sudanese pound strengthening to 16 per dollar from 19 before the sanctions announcement.

The pound trades at 6.8 per dollar in the official banking system. The minister said a stronger pound would tame inflation, which hit an annual rate of 30.47 percent in December.

“We expect inflation to start declining beginning this July and for the value of the pound to continue rising with the inflow of remittances from Sudanese abroad and foreign investments,” said Yasin.

(Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Ahmed Aboulenein and Richard Lough)