Increasing emphasis on food testing for contaminants, pathogens and allergens
Dr Asha Martin
The recent highly publicised food safety crises has raised the issue of safety of foods and caused widespread public concern in India. The focus was undoubtedly on food safety in 2015 and a notable trend was the growing emphasis placed on food testing for contaminants, pathogens and allergens. There is a great demand for food testing laboratories. Analytical testing of food products is poised for great growth due to the sheer magnitude of commodities and their complexity. For instance, pesticide residues in food are considered as a contaminant of major concern and Maximum Residual Limits (MRLs) have been prescribed for the registered pesticides under Food Safety & Standards Act.
At present, about 260 pesticides have been registered for use in India. Pesticide residues in foods can be regulated by enforcing strict implementation of the Act and by conducting regular surveillance of foods for pesticide residue levels. But, at the same time, pesticide residue analysis is not an easy task and involves huge work force. It is not possible to monitor all the pesticides using a single method or a single instrument. We need to use different sample preparation methods and different instruments depending on the type of compound or the matrix of sample in which pesticide is being monitored. To monitor pesticide residues in foods and to generate authentic data, it is essential to have accredited food testing laboratories with all the required infrastructure, trained/experienced analysts and methods that are validated for the purpose. The food industry is seeking rapid testing methods that are cost-effective and accurate. The way forward is the use of new and advanced techniques that are highly automated. It is anticipated that researchers, food industries, regulatory agencies will continue to focus attention on emerging pathogens, developing new and improved methodology of analysis and instruments and harmonising food regulations and standards.
Food safety systems are facing new challenges in particular from the emerging technologies (recombinant DNA technology, nanotechnology etc.) which need to be researched and investigated. There is a need for capacity building in the area of food testing across the country. From the Indian perspective, the availability of methods of analysis providing quick and reliable analytical results at a reasonable cost and capacity building in the areas of food analysis is the key for an effective food safety management system.
A notable trend is that food safety is becoming increasingly digital. Consumers demand greater transparency and information when it comes to the food they eat. Food producers are under increasing pressure to ensure the safety of their products. Indeed, the reputational and business damage of food safety failures are greater than ever. Food safety mobile apps, online platforms and consumer feedback mechanisms are definitely on the rise. With a flurry of information available at the click of a button, food industries are fast adapting to the challenges of food safety, transparency and traceability by going digital.
Following are the recommendations, which can positively impact the food safety scenario in India. These are capacity building in the area of food safety and analysis; Establishing state-of-art accredited food testing laboratories; Risk-assessment studies of important food hazards in recommending standards to meet emerging challenges; Development and validation of test methods for food additives and contaminants at trace levels; and Development of rapid and simple food adulteration detection kits.
Food standards play a crucial role in protecting the health of the consumers and in promoting trade. Strengthening food safety and quality control system including educating consumers about safety and quality are essential requirements for the good health of population in our country. By raising food safety awareness for consumers, we can make a real impact on public health. With a population of around 1.6 billion, many of whom are poor or in the low income bracket, a major challenge for our country is how to make food available to our people – food in sufficient quantity, food that is safe and of right quality, and is available at affordable price. It is indeed a challenge to ensure that the food we consume is safe. We all want food to be safe. We all want consumers to have confidence. And we all want trade to be unimpeded by food safety concerns.
(The author is scientist & head, Food Safety & Analytical Quality Control Lab, CSIR – CFTRI, Mysuru)