• English
  • العربية
  • 中文
  • Français
  • Русский
  • Español

You are here

World Food Safety Day 2022: ‘Safer Food, Better Health’ Using Nuclear Techniques


Food safety laboratories play a key role in detecting and halting the spread of contamination. (Photo: Bureau of Quality Control of Livestock Products, Thailand)

Safety first – the adage rings true when it comes to the food we eat. “One in ten people fall ill from contaminated food each year,” said Naoko Yamamoto, the World Health Organization’s Assistant Director-General for Universal Health Coverage and Health Systems in a video statement. “Perhaps we don’t hear much about foodborne diseases, but their public health burden is comparable to that of malaria or HIV/AIDS.”  

On this World Food Safety Day, 7 June – celebrating “Safer food, better health” – the IAEA is raising awareness of the role isotopic and other nuclear techniques play in ensuring the food we eat is safe to consume. The IAEA, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), builds capacity around the world in the use of these techniques and also supports the latest developments in applying ionizing radiation to help food products stay fresh and free of invasive pests. 

“In the complex journey of foods, from farm to fork, nuclear techniques can contribute to food safety,” said Andrew Cannavan, Head of the Food Safety and Control Section at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. Nuclear technology and related analytical techniques are transferred to countries through the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme and are further developed through its coordinated research activities. “These countries become equipped with skills to expand and adapt techniques to different scenarios and to perform food safety research themselves,” he added.  

Food safety laboratories – a front line of defence

Because most threats of contaminated food can go undetected by consumers, food safety laboratories are key to halt the spread of contamination. The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre has been supporting food safety labs worldwide to help monitor and track contaminants and agrochemical residues in foods.

In Sri Lanka, for example, IAEA assistance in developing testing capability has played a pivotal role in protecting consumers, particularly from aflatoxin-contaminated coconut oil. Long term exposure to aflatoxin can affect the immune system and normal development, or cause cancer, according to WHO. Click here to read how the IAEA assisted Sri Lanka to implement screening and confirmatory methodologies using nuclear techniques. 

In Cameroon, new research – supported by the IAEA and FAO – pointed to the need for regulation of fish raised in aquaculture, where antibiotic levels in half of the fish in small farms studied contained antibiotic levels above internationally accepted limits. Agrochemicals and veterinary drugs were also found in a significant portion of the fish. “Studies like this help decision makers put forward solutions that will prevent food contamination,” Cannavan said. “No news is good news when it comes to food safety – it means preventive measures have worked.” 

Food irradiation to eliminate contaminants

Irradiating foods helps to eliminate or neutralize harmful microbial contaminants without altering the taste or texture of foods and without leaving residues. “Ionizing radiation is gentle on food, but not on microbes or invasive pests,” said Carl Blackburn, Food Irradiation Specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre. The IAEA and FAO are supporting the latest developments in the fields of food and phytosanitary irradiation. In 2021, an IAEA coordinated research project demonstrated the feasibility of using low energy electron beams (LEEBs) and low energy X-rays to reduce infestation and microbial contamination. A new and ongoing coordinated research project devoted to low energy beam treatments is further developing and promoting the innovation of in-house radiation processing of foods. Learn more about the potential for in-house irradiation devices. 

Stable isotopes to detect food fraud

(Source: ThermoFisher Scientific)

From truffles and wines to honey and olive oil, food products are sometimes subject to adulteration or mislabelling by vendors hoping to pump up profits. Luckily for consumers, the isotopic fingerprints of food can confirm or deny the identity of products. Stable isotope analysis identifies what is in food and if labels correspond with the ingredients.  

“If a consumer is buying a product that has been adulterated or counterfeit, the consumer does not know what they are buying. The ingredients in there may not be safe; they could be toxic or harmful,” Cannavan said. 

The main technique to detect food fraud is by measuring and analysing naturally occurring stable isotopes. Isotopes are measured by isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), and the ratios of isotopes can be compared to authentic foods to distinguish between true and adulterated foods. “The ratios of the isotopes of certain elements can be used to trace food origin, check its authenticity and test for contaminants or adulterants”, Cannavan said. 

In Bangladesh, where honey production has increased for both domestic consumption and export, the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques provided nuclear technical training and support to trace food fraud and adulteration. In 2021, the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission was able to determine the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen isotopic composition of 52 honey samples collected from beekeepers, Bangladeshi markets and foreign markets. By using IRMS, 12 samples were found to be adulterated with a sugar syrup. The commission has alerted Bangladesh’s Food Safety Authority. 

Read more about the IAEA and FAO’s joint work to ensure food safety and quality

Stay in touch