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New EU food reference labs open for business

20 March 2007, 13:13 CET
Three new Community Reference Laboratories (CRLs) opened their doors for business on 16 March. Located at the Joint Research Centre's Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM), in Geel, Belgium, the laboratories will be responsible for providing the certified reference materials and methods needed for the control of heavy metals, mycotoxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in food across the European Union.

Certified reference materials are an essential part of food risk management, safety and quality assurance. They are materials whose properties are accurately known, such as the mercury content in tuna fish muscles, or aflatoxin - a type of mycotoxin - in fig paste. The materials are distributed to laboratories across Europe so that they can verify the accuracy of their analytical results on foodstuffs.

Speaking at their inauguration, IRMM Director Alejandro Herrero said that the CRMs are providing Europe with a common, reliable, measurement system. The JRC now runs six out of the Union's 40 reference laboratories. 'Our role is to provide common tools for food quality assurance so that everybody is comparing apples with apples and pears with pears,' he noted.

'If you calibrate your instrument, let's say, with one standard, while others calibrate theirs using a different standard and method, then you are not going to come up with comparable results. Comparability is essential to upholding EU food safety legislation,' he told CORDIS News.

The decision to open the three new laboratories was a matter of necessity, according to Mr Herrero. 'These contaminants represent significant risks,' he said. 'There is a need to be vigilant to prevent these substances appearing in our food.'

Markos Kyprianou, European Commissioner for Health, who officially opened the laboratories, also underlined the importance of monitoring threats to food safety for the benefit of consumers. 'Europe has the most demanding consumers who expect that the food that reaches their table and markets is safe to eat,' he said.

Mycotoxins are substances produced by fungi growing on food and animal feed. It is estimated that up to 20% of food products may contain mycotoxins, which can cause mild to serious illness. The JRC lab will focus on providing analytical methods for some 12 mycotoxins.

Heavy metals are present in almost all foodstuffs. While some are important for our nutrition, others, such as lead, cadmium and mercury, have no nutritional value and can, in some cases, contribute to serious illnesses such as cancer, or damage the central nervous system.

Meanwhile, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are also considered to be harmful. These compounds can enter food during production processes, such as the smoke flavouring of foods, and some are thought to cause cancer or DNA mutation. A total of 16 PAHs will be monitored for long-term exposure assessment.

Experts were at hand at the launch event to illustrate some of the tasks that the new laboratories will be undertaking.

All three laboratories will be producing reference materials. This involves milling down substances into tiny particles so that every sample produced is homogeneous. These materials must also be made stable - meaning they can be distributed and used over several years - and must be representative of a real sample in a laboratory.

The time to produce these reference materials depends very much on the food substance and the method employed. To provide one measured sample of a PAH in edible oils can take 70 minutes, according to Thomas Wenzl, the operating manager of the PAH lab. 'For other materials where you need to extract the PAHs, like in meat, the process is much longer because of additional clean-up of the sample handling.'

Reference samples are produced in large batches. When the lab runs out of these materials, the whole production process starts again. The new materials also need to be tested against previous samples to ensure that they are of the same quality and standard.

In the Mycotoxin lab, scientists will work on monitoring the reference methods already developed and validated to ensure that they are being properly implemented in labs across Europe.

Following changes to EU legislation to cover a greater number of mycotoxins, the lab will be developing new reference methods on these. They will also be validating commercially-available multi-mycotoxin testing kits, one of which the Geel team demonstrated. While a reference method always gives more precise answers about the content of the mycotoxin, these kits which work very much like pregnancy kits, can detect, in a matter of minutes, the presence of a substance in food and indicate whether it is above or below the legislative limit.

'These [kits] are very often used in places where you need a rapid decision such as at a port to identify materials that may be contaminated,' explains Jörg Stroka, who has been working at the JRC on mycotoxins since 1996. The kits enable shipments to be quickly tested but they do not replace the reference method. 'In the first stages you use simple tests and at a later stage there is more time to perform a reference analysis,' he said, noting that this combined approach ensures robust testing while at the same time cutting costs.

In addition to these tasks, all three laboratories will conduct training and inter-laboratory comparisons for the appointed national reference laboratories. These allow national laboratories to assess their performance and allow them to improve their overall accuracy and analytical results.

Community Reference Laboratories

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