Food safety sensor research aimed at small companies

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Food

Mice and rats may get a break in being used as testers for toxins
at shellfish processing plants under an EU-wide project.

Under the BioCop project scientists are working with food industry equipment makers to turn current high-tech instruments on the market into affordable, more accurate cross-contaminant detectorsthat speed up the process of weeding out unsafe products.

In the US about 250 million chemical analyses are performed each day. About 10 per cent of these are of a poor standard and had to be repeated, according to the BioCop site.

"These figures are supported by the European Commission, which estimated that at least five per cent of the gross national product activities of European countries are devoted tomeasurement and millions of euro are wasted each year by the need to repeat poor quality tests,"​ the report states.

The Biocop project is an unusual partnership due to the difference in priorities between industry and academics. However, the effort means instrument makers get access to the resources universitiesand other research institutes have at their disposal, said one of the project's management leaders, Mark Pullinger.

The project is designed to develop better monitors for multiple chemical contaminants, including pesticides, toxins and drugs, in a variety of foodstuffs. The project aims to supply food processorswith better instruments to meet the fresh demands from consumers and regulators for increased food safety and quality.

Currently most monitors are useful only for particular contaminants.

The project will study novel techniques aimed at the DNA 'finger printing' foodstuffs to discover if they contain any chemical contaminants. The project will be led by a team in Belfast who willlink up with 32 other partners from research centres, regulatory agencies and industry in 15 European countries, as well as Canada.

BioCop , one of five food-related projects launched earlier this month, has been constructed to supply regulators, consumers and industry with long-term solutions to the complex problems associatedwith chemical contaminant monitoring, Pullinger told in an interview.

"Small food producers do not have the resources to monitor for a wide range of contaminants,"​ Pullinger said. "We are looking to develop cheap, portable sensors that can beused in the field or on plant sites."

Pullinger works at Chalex Research, a research funding consultancy based in the UK. For example he is involved in developing a sensor that can detect multiple toxins in shellfish.

Currently shellfish processors are only allowed to use rats and mice in testing for toxins. The animal is injected with a sample. If it gets sick or dies, the shellfish is rejected as unsafe.

The objective of the team is to develop a multi-channel, high-throughput biosensor for the detection of diarrheic shellfish toxins, yessotoxins, pectenotoxins, azaspiracids and gymnodimine.

The proposed biosensor will use surface plasmon resonance (SPR) to detect and measure these lipophilic phycotoxins in seafood residues. The sensor allow processors to make real-time, automated,multiresidue analysis of food products, both in laboratories and at on-site locations.

In particular the team is involved in the production of the sensor chip that will do the job. The chip can then be added to an existing sensor allowing the instrument to make the analysis of theshellfish sample.

Another team is involved in a project to develop a sensor to detect heavy metal pollution in cereals. The team will develop the sensor so it can be used at the input end of the production chain andalso on the finished product.

For example a cereal maker would be able to put a cornflake sample, put it into a solution and get a reading on whether it contains dangerous levels of heavy metals.

Currently companies without in-plant labs have to send the samples away for testing, losing time and incurring costs, Pullinger said.

Other scientists are working on a range of new technologies such as transcriptomics and proteomics techniques, which use DNA methods to identify chemicals. These approaches are based on measuringeffect rather than on measuring single target compound concentrations.

The 'biomarker and fingerprinting' concept is key to this strategy. Substantial advances in sample preparation will be achieved using novel procedures such as aptamers, microwave assistedextraction and pressurised liquid extraction.

The technologies will be used to help processors meet European maximum residue level (MRL) targets and agreed international standards where no MRLs presently exist.

The project also aims to make improvements in physio-chemical detection methods to so the instruments can be used by regulators for enforcement of the standards.

A survey by Globescan last year of France, the UK, Germany and Italy found that 36 per cent of consumers believed food safety is worse today than 20 years ago, and another 22 per cent believed itno better. BSE and a consecutive string of other food safety scares have led to a fall in consumer confidence.

An EU-funded study of 23,000 people found about 60 per cent were "very concerned about the safety of food" with regard chemical contaminants.

In response the EU has funneled about €500 million into food safety projects over the past three years. BioCop has received about €10 million for its work.

About 61 per cent of the alerts issued under the European Commission's rapid notification system related to chemical contamination issues. The figure includes chemicals related to veterinary drugand pesticide residues. Another 30 per cent of the alerts related to microbiological contamination.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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