Every country faces food safety issues at some point. Ironically, the more sophisticated a country becomes in monitoring food safety, the more likely safety issues will be uncovered. In Asia, we have seen a massive shift in attention to food safety standards. Over the past decade, a number of Asian nations including China, Japan, and India have reassessed and made significant revisions to their food safety regulations. While nations such as Japan have already fully implemented new nationwide food safety regulations, many other countries are still revising or developing new rules and laws.
China is an important example of this shift, with a multitude of new food safety laws coming into effect in the country last year. Considered the toughest food safety laws ever passed, 50 new articles have been added on top of the original regulations announced in 2009, now totalling 154 articles. The regulations address food safety issues in specific problem categories of the Chinese food sector, including: infant formula, functional health foods and the growing market for online food retail.
Food Testing Evolves To Meet New Regulatory Needs
Changes in regulations pose potential challenges for all stakeholders involved in food safety testing, whether they are government regulatory agencies, companies commissioning the tests, the scientists carrying out the testing, or instrument manufacturers who they partner with.
For instance, some expected changes to European Union regulations may result in changes to a large number of food safety tests being carried out. Equally important, it may result in changes to the profile of the analyses that are required to be monitored, such as pesticide residues and veterinary drugs.
Furthermore, as some of the regulations that dictate the more technical elements of the testing itself evolve, it is critical for us to fully understand the upcoming changes, and guide our customers and stakeholders on how to meet the new challenges.
Targeting High-Value Export Food Markets—Capabilities
In 2003, Thai poultry exports were worth almost US$350 million, but by 2005 the value of exports had plunged dramatically to less than US$5 million after banned nitrofuran antibiotics were detected in their products.
The Thai poultry industry was hit hard as exports dropped 98 percent, and hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs were lost due to the trade ban. This issue reminds of how important it is to keep food exporters and our partners well informed to meet the evermore stringent food testing standards in different importing countries.
Despite both government and industry efforts to bring Asia’s food safety control and testing capabilities up to the best international standards and regulations, standards of safety and test still vary significantly from country to country. Even within a given country, there are often varying degrees of capability depending on the type of food production being controlled.
Improving food safety control and testing capabilities have gradually become Asian countries’ and companies’ strategy to gain access to export markets. Once access to high-value export food markets is won, countries generally apply reciprocal controls on imported food before finally applying regulations more broadly to domestically-produced and consumed food.
China again stands out as an example of how Asia has taken seriously the process of implementing new food safety regulations and improving testing capabilities to support exports. Over the past 10 years, China made enormous improvements in its capacity for food safety testing; and its rapid, countrywide adoption and implementation of instrumental techniques, such as liquid chromatography–tandem-mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS), has been phenomenal.
At present, there are many experienced scientists working in well-equipped labs in tandem with western counterparts, to control food destined for export markets. To level the playing field, the country is working very hard to improve its technical capabilities. The goal is to improve controls on domestically produced and consumed food.
Maggi Noodle Crisis: The Moral Of The Largest Food Recalls
Speaking of food controls, 2015 was a bad year for Maggi Noodles as the brand hit rock bottom in India. Though Nestlé spent three decades building the iconic noodle brand in India, it was forced to stop selling and to recall the product which accounted for 25 percent of their US$1.6 billion annual revenue in India.
The food safety issue began with the discovery of both monosodium glutamate and high levels of lead in laboratory results. There were, however, some question marks over the accuracy of the state tests. To counter widespread accusations brewing across India, the company published contradictory test results on more than 3,500 samples which dismissed state lab’s results and claimed that the instant noodles were safe to be consumed, with lead counts well below the legal threshold.
This major setback was estimated to have cost them US$70 million to execute one of the largest food recalls in history and as much as US$500 million in total. The moral of the story is that, clearly, although lab testing alone is not an effective answer to addressing food safety, government, industry and consumers need to be able to have faith in the veracity of lab test results and the important role it plays in building trust in the effectiveness of food safety controls.
The Art And Science Of Contaminants Detection
One strategy is to enhance its next generation test capabilities, such as the use of high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS). The beauty of HRMS is that it allows food safety scientists to detect large numbers of potential contaminants, and offers them the ability to screen for unexpected contaminants. While interest in HRMS is strong in Asia and beyond, the adoption rate of the technique in both Europe and North America is not as high as China.
While there have been significant advances in HRMS technology, as well as LCMS, the matrix complexity remains a major challenge. Food scientists must be able to screen for very large numbers of contaminants (which necessitates minimal sample preparation), while minimising the effects of matrix co-extractants on the ability of the system, so that they can make correct identifications.
To resolve this issue, it is recommended that food safety scientists routinely incorporate the Ion Mobility Mass Spectrometry (IMS) into their mass spectrometry instrument, which delivers the ability to create an orthogonal separation. The separation is based on the shape of the molecules, in addition to the accurate mass to charge (m/z) delivered by most HRMS instruments.
This new separation technology gives food safety scientists neverbefore- possible capabilities in identifying unknown substances. It also establishes a new empirical parameter (collisional cross section; CCS) which, unlike mass accuracy, is unaffected by matrix complexity. This gives users an additional measure of certainty when detecting and identifying both targeted and untargeted contaminants.
Lack Of Skilled Talent The Major Barrier To Accuracy
However, even with these cutting-edge technologies, food safety scientists still fail to meet demand in Asia due to one simple fact: there simply are not enough skilled personnel. Currently there is a large deficiency of talent capable of generating and correctly interpreting data. There are two possible solutions to this, both of which will be critical to enhance Asia’s food safety standards. First, the laboratory instrumentation will need to become easier to use, or, to put it another way, easier to deliver the results correctly. The reason why it is so important is because the testing results can differ drastically if the same laboratory personnel does not closely follow procedures in the same method.
To improve result accuracy, usability is something that should be heavily invested on through the product development process. As analytical testing solutions are created with ease of use and workflow incorporation in mind, the technology can be made more accessible to new users. Second, there is an acute need for better and more coordinated sharing of knowledge and best practices globally, particularly around the implementation of best in class quality standards for analytical testing and demonstration of fitness for purpose of analytical techniques. This is a globally acknowledged problem and the international community is coming together to improve technical capabilities through the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP)—a public, private partnership facilitated by the World Bank—which aims to improve food safety globally through capability building in low- and middle-income countries.
It brings together international organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation and the World Health Organisation with government regulators, non-government organisations and industry, to improve food safety systems and improve compliance with food safety standards.
By promoting the development of networks of skilled trainers (through training-of-trainer initiatives) and offering on-going support as they continue to roll out in-country training programs, GFSP has already demonstrated the effectiveness of this type of program for offering scalability to training. Also, through the use of proficiency testing, it has been demonstrated that the training can result in a change of behaviour and ultimately, better accuracy in the testing.
Last but not least, the importance of the networking element should never be overlooked; connecting scientist trainees into a larger global network and increases the knowledge base they can fall back on. This global connection and information sharing ultimately creates an excellent mechanism for building trust among the food safety ecosystem.
With training programs by GFSP, scientists can bring back new knowledge to their own organisations and therefore improve food safety levels in more, and eventually all, countries, including the developing economies in Asia such as Vietnam and Indonesia. The goal is to eventually put an end to major food safety issues in future.