Poisonous mould found in peanuts for garden birds

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Peanuts in garden bird feeders may be an increasing danger to birds because of a poisonous mould produced when the nuts are stored for too long, Britain's biggest bird food supplier believes.

Peanuts in garden bird feeders may be an increasing danger to birds because of a poisonous mould produced when the nuts are stored for too long, Britain's biggest bird food supplier believes.

CJ Wildbird Foods, a mail-order company based in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, is to stop selling peanuts because of the high levels of poisonous "aflatoxins" spot checks have detected in some nuts sold in pet shops.

Aflatoxins first caused alarm in the Sixties, before putting out peanuts for garden birds became popular, when more than 100,000 turkey poults and ducks in Britain died after eating food containing Brazilian groundnut cake. Present requirements are that aflatoxin levels should not exceed 20 parts per billion in bird nuts, or two parts per billion in nuts for human consumption. But a local authority trading standards department, in recent checks on peanuts on sale for birds, found aflatoxin levels of more than 20 parts per billion in seven out of 32 samples.

One sample tested by Buckinghamshire County Council showed a concentration of 570 parts per billion - more than 28 times the official safety level. The levels in the other six contaminated samples were 420, 260, 113, 80, 65 and 62. (In checks done on 26 samples of peanuts for humans all satisfied the tolerance level.)

David Collinson, the council's principal trading standards officer, said the tests had a "horrendously high failure rate. A lot of people thought the aflatoxin danger had been addressed - our findings suggest clearly it hasn't."

The tests would be repeated in the winter when birds were more likely to take peanuts, he said. Meanwhile, the importer of the sample with the highest aflatoxin levelshad been cautioned and other trading standards departments alerted.

CJ Wildbird Foods, however, says the danger is serious enough to stop selling peanuts completely. "I think 20 parts per billion is certainly unsafe and I am not prepared to lower our standards by going to less than zero. So we are going to withdraw from the peanut market," said Chris Whittles, the chairman and a former honorary secretary of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

"As this country's largest supplier we cannot find enough peanuts of the quality standard we require. At present we understand there are between 30,000 and 50,000 tonnes of contaminated nuts in the UK and at Rotterdam docks."

The contamination is produced by a minute mould growing between the skin and the kernel. The nuts are often left in humid containers awaiting shipment instead of being stored in dry, cool conditions.

The company would now concentrate on sunflower seeds and hearts as the prime garden bird food, Mr Whittles said. "They provide the oils and proteins birds need - and are preferred to peanuts by a wider range of birds. Also, they are more suited to birds in this country than peanuts, which are produced in tropical countries and grow underground where birds would normally not locate them." He added: "They represent 20 per cent of our turnover, or £1m - but we are not prepared to sell anything that might harm birds."

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said the company's decision to stop selling peanuts affected them as the company was the sole supplier of all peanuts sold under the RSPB logo. "Our current stock is aflatoxin-free. When it runs out we will try to find another source of the same standard, but if we cannot do so we will not offer them for sale. We, like CJ Wildbird Foods, will not compromise on standards."

Meanwhile, Mr Whittles does not suspect contaminated peanuts to be a cause of the big decline in house sparrow numbers in urban areas - which has been suggested in several letters to The Independent. A more likely reason was the insufficient insect food for their young in the early summer - possibly as a result of pollution from the clean-air additive in toxic fuel, he said.