"Despite this issue, we believe the overall quality of this year's wheat harvest is promising," explains Elwin Hermanson, chief commissioner of the Canadian Grain Commission, "Through our Harvest Sample Program, we've received samples of high quality wheat, as well as samples downgraded because of ergot. When we notice a potential problem, it's our duty to let Canadian producers know."
To date, the CGC has received about 500 samples of Canada Western Red Spring wheat from producers taking part in the Harvest Sample Program. Ergot was a grading factor in a number of these samples.
Ergot is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. Wet, cool and cloudy weather during the flowering stages creates ideal conditions for spores to enter wheat florets. In an infected wheat plant, purple or black ergot bodies develop in place of wheat kernels. These bodies can lodge in the soil at harvest. If they survive the winter, and the following spring is cool and wet, the bodies release spores and the cycle can begin again.
Ergot is toxic to both humans and animals, and its toxicity is not reduced by processing. It also affects the appearance of products, because it leads to dark specks in flour.
Tolerances for ergot, found in the Canadian Grain Commission's Official Grain Grading Guide, are based on scientific assessments in order to maintain the quality and safety of Canada's wheat. A sample that otherwise meets all tolerances for a grade could be downgraded if it exceeds the tolerances for ergot for that grade.