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Equipped With New Capabilities, Laboratory in Pakistan Helps Improve Food Safety, Increase Exports

Researchers at the IAEA’s laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria, have assisted the Pakistani Veterinary Residue Laboratory to learn how to perform state-of-the-art tests to certify the safety of food. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

The Pakistani Veterinary Residue Laboratory in Faisalabad, a food laboratory supported by the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has acquired the capability to undertake state-of-the-art tests to certify the safety of food. It has recently earned International Organization for Standardization (ISO) accreditation, and officials expect this to contribute to increased meat exports thanks to food safety certificates the lab will be able to issue for the first time. 

“Pakistan produces some of the world’s finest tasting foods, especially meat and other animal products,” said Ahmad Waqar, who is in charge of this cooperation at the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the IAEA. “In the past, Pakistan has had exports rejected because they did not comply with the food safety standards of importing countries. This resulted in safety concerns, significant economic losses and food waste.”

The livestock sector contributes 12 percent of Pakistan’s GDP. In 2010, the European Union rejected 134 food export consignments due to the presence of contaminants. This raised concerns in Pakistan about the need to improve its food safety control system.

Veterinary drug misuse comes with consequences

As with many farmers around the world, it is common practice to administer medicines to animals to keep them healthy, rather than to treat disease when it occurs. “From a food safety point of view, problems especially arise when farmers do not have correct advice on what drug to buy and use, or do not follow instructions on how, when and how much to administer or how long to wait until the drugs have cleared out of the animal’s body,” said James Jacob Sasanya, food safety specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. If drugs remain in the animals, they, or their residues, may end up in food products and could pose a health hazard to consumers.

For meat and other food products to be accepted as safe for consumption, they must be tested, among others, for veterinary drug residues to ensure these residues do not exceed safety or reference limits. “Pakistan did not have the capacity to conduct these tests until the new laboratory became operational,” Waqar said.

The laboratory was established by Pakistan’s Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. The IAEA’s technical cooperation programme helped by providing the laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment, and supported training opportunities at various European reference laboratories and expert missions to assist with implementing measurement protocols and methods as well as regular technical advice. Through this support, the laboratory has increased its testing capability and received the accreditation.

The certificate is valid for three years for the analysis of seven types of antibiotics and hormone analyses in food products. As a result, Pakistan now has the capacity to process over a thousand food samples each year.

Sheep products used to make sausages are one of the key export products and are monitored by 13 quarantine centers in Pakistan. These centers rely on credible laboratory testing, which for the first time is now available at the Veterinary Residue Laboratory and internationally recognized. “In the absence of its own national analytical capabilities, tests had to be outsourced to other countries, which is both expensive and time-consuming,” Sasanya said. “With this new achievement, Pakistan can now rely on its own analytical capabilities.”

Several countries from around the world are benefitting from this nuclear-derived technique and the assistance of the IAEA and the FAO for its implementation, including Botswana and Morocco. 

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