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In Seychelles, Nuclear Science Helps Safeguard Consumers

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Milk testing

Scientist from the Seychelles Public Health Laboratory conducting milk testing. (Photo: S. Labrosse/Seychelles Public Health Laboratory)

The 100,000 inhabitants of Seychelles, a 115-island archipelago in the Indian Ocean, can now better trust the food products they buy thanks to the use of nuclear-based techniques.

Initiated in 2016, a four-year technical cooperation project led by the IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has helped increase food safety control capacities in the Seychelles. As a result, the Seychelles Public Health Laboratory can now detect carcinogenic substances called aflatoxins M1 in milk and dairy imports. At the same time, the government strengthened the national legal framework to better protect consumer health with respect to these contaminants.

Many small island developing states, sometimes referred to as SIDS, rely on food imports owing to their small size, topography and weather unsuited to agriculture. Monitoring and controlling contaminants such as mycotoxins, biotoxins and toxic metals in imported food products, as well as the residues of veterinary medicines and pesticides used in food production, is crucial to keep consumers safe and trusting.

“Thanks to IAEA and FAO support, we are now capable of conducting analysis for traces of a range of residues and contaminants in food, thus having the ability to better protect consumers from potential hazards in imported products,” said Leon Biscornet, Chief Laboratory Technologist at the Seychelles Public Health Laboratory. The ability to also certify the safety of food products destined for export markets helps to improve access to or keep those markets and can boost agricultural exports, he added.

Detection of aflatoxin in milk and dairy products

Over 90% of the milk and dairy products consumed on the archipelago are imported. After a year of collaboration with the IAEA and FAO, the laboratory was able to detect levels of aflatoxins M1 above the acceptable limit in 12 types of imported milk products. The suspected products were immediately recalled, pending confirmation of the lab’s diagnosis from an international reference laboratory. More than 90% of the suspected samples were confirmed positive to aflatoxins M1 by the reference laboratory, demonstrating the reliability of the testing capabilities now established at the Seychelles Public Health Laboratory.

Produced by fungi, aflatoxins are a major public health and trade concern globally, as they increase the risk of cancer, especially liver cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Aflatoxins can also cause acute sickness or toxicity in humans. Therefore, their presence in food products should be regulated and monitored using reliable laboratories, said James Sasanya, Food Safety Specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

Before the incident with contaminated milk, the national food regulations on contaminants and toxins in food or feed in the Seychelles did not include any limit of aflatoxin M1 concentration in milk and milk products. This has now changed with the amendment in 2019 of the national Food Safety Act.  “Under the new provisions, there is now a clear legal basis for removing contaminated milk products from the market, both wholesale and retail, with immediate effect,” said Jude Gédéon, Public Health Commissioner.

The amendment also requires importers to provide the Public Health Authority legitimate proof, through a health certificate, that their imported milk is free of contaminants, such as unsafe levels of aflatoxin M1 as well as residues.

Food safety, staff and technical equipment

“Two challenges for small countries are limited availability of specialized human resources and lack of necessary equipment to facilitate food safety testing and operation of laboratories. Through our project, we were able to address some of these needs, contributing to enhanced consumer safety through the improvement of the national food control system,” said Sulafa Karar, the IAEA Programme Management Officer in charge of the project. 

The IAEA and FAO delivered training and equipment and shared best practices with lab staff. Equipment included a radio receptor assay instrument, a state-of-the-art tool that can analyze more than 10 groups of veterinary antimicrobials, mycotoxins and pesticides (see The Science).

Five laboratory staff were trained on the analysis of mycotoxins and related contaminants. Technical guidance was also provided to the laboratory on the interpretation of test results, especially levels of total aflatoxins in feed, animals and animal products considered unacceptable. The laboratory also benefited from subsequent hands-on training on optimum use of analytical instrumentation, as well as sample preparation for effective analysis of mycotoxins in foods – not only milk, but also nuts and spices.

This support resulted in the establishment of rapid, cost-effective and sensitive nuclear analytical capabilities that facilitate the testing of hazards in a broad range of foods and animal feed – which can also affect people’s health through the consumption of animal products . Facilitating testing for aflatoxins M1 was the most recent addition to the growing list of compounds that can be screened at the laboratory.

The Seychelles Public Health Laboratory is now in advanced stages of establishing isotopic confirmatory analytical capabilities. This means that confirmatory tests currently conducted overseas will soon be conducted domestically. This will further boost the country’s food safety control system and positively impact the quality of imported and exported food products consumed.

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