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World Food Safety Day: Nuclear Techniques Used to Keep our Food Safe

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Today, with the capacity built with the support of IAEA and FAO, UNBS carries out regular, independent sampling and testing of market-bound animal and plant products across Uganda. (Photo: O. Yusuf/IAEA)

“Food safety, everyone’s business” — this is the slogan of this year’s World Food Safety Day.

From fields and farms to dinner plates, the IAEA — in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) — builds capacity in countries worldwide in the use of nuclear, isotopic and complimentary analytical techniques to determine the safety and quality of food, including its origin and authenticity. It also provides support to specialists worldwide on the use of food irradiation to increase the durability of food products.

Over 70 countries have benefited from support in using nuclear techniques for the control of harmful chemical residues and contaminants, delivered as part of the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme as well as through coordinated research projects. We celebrate World Food Safety Day this year by showcasing two achievements — from Uganda and Costa Rica.

Food safety control and training in Uganda

In Uganda, agriculture forms the backbone of the economy, employing over 70% of the working population and accounting for a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product with annual exports estimated at US$ 1.8 billion. To help protect this critical sector, the IAEA and FAO have for half a decade supported institutional capacity building at the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) and partner institutions through the establishment of state-of-the-art laboratory instrumentation and through the training of personnel to detect and monitor a range of hazards, including veterinary drug and pesticide residues in food, according to relevant national and international regulations. Support has also enabled UNBS to attain and maintain ISO/IEC (17025) accreditation for testing and calibration.  Reliable laboratory testing is also a prerequisite for and ensures competitiveness of food exports to many countries.

“Analytical laboratories are critical to ensuring that food safety control systems are sound. Laboratories help screen and confirm the presence or absence of hazards a consumer wouldn’t see, and therefore guide corrective measures and good practices along the food chain to safeguard the consumer’s health,” said James Sasanya, a Food Safety Specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

Today, with the capacity built with the support of IAEA and FAO, UNBS works closely with its counterparts at the Directorate of Government Analytical Laboratory (DGAL), Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) and other Ugandan institutions to carry out regular, independent sampling and testing of a wide range of market-bound animal and plant products for residues and contaminants. These institutions also help the country respond to and address food safety emergencies, and in the case of UNBS, verify that relief food supplied, especially to vulnerable populations and those at risk during emergencies such as the COVID-19 related lockdown, is safe and of quality.

Laboratories in the countryside have also received support, bringing analytical services closer to the community. A good example is the use of a mobile laboratory van, which is used to quickly screen milk and milk products for residues and contaminants followed by confirmation in a designated laboratory setting.

Staff at Uganda’s National Bureau of Standards put their IAEA training to use to test foodstuffs. (Photo: O. Yusuf/IAEA)

The capacity built is benefiting other countries. Food safety laboratory scientists from neighbouring countries are now trained by UNBS and DGAL.

“In Uganda, the issue of Food Safety has gone a notch higher with the establishment of modern Food Safety Laboratories at the UNBS by the Government of Uganda and through the technical capacity in food safety built with support from the IAEA,” said  Deus Mubangizi, Manager of the UNBS Testing Laboratories. “The laboratories have been equipped with modern equipment that use nuclear techniques in the analysis of residues and food contaminants such as mycotoxins, pesticide and drug residues, and the training of technical personnel. This has put Uganda at a higher level of preparedness in the region, and this capacity is being utilized to train food safety experts from other countries from Africa and other regions.”

Further support to Uganda’s food safety laboratories is ongoing to facilitate testing of a broader range of hazards, including toxic metals, using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and confirmation of volatile substances using isotopic chromatographic-spectrometric techniques, Sasanya explained.

Costa Rica’s improved food safety testing capabilities

Costa Rica is a major exporter of agricultural products and therefore has to comply with a range of food safety-related measures set by importing countries to protect their populations. The measures include international standards, guidelines and recommendations for the production of safe and quality-assured foods. This requires that necessary analytical capacity exists to detect and monitor residues and food contaminants, such as pesticide residues, veterinary drugs or mycotoxins.

In Costa Rica, the IAEA, in partnership with the FAO, has enhanced capabilities of the National Laboratory for Diagnosis and Research in Animal Health (LANASEVE) to screen a wide range of residues and contaminants using radio receptor assay and related techniques, and to confirm the results using isotopic chromatographic and spectrometric tools. These capabilities are not only contributing to the protection of consumers in the country, but also support exports without depending on laboratories abroad. In the past, Costa Rican fish producers used to send 200 samples a year to laboratories abroad for testing, however, LANASEVE can now analyse these in Heredia, north of San José, saving each producer at least €27 000 per year.

Further support is underway. Through the technical cooperation programme, LANASEVE will soon establish capabilities to conduct advanced testing of toxic metals using a tool that enables the analysis of different metal species, including inorganic arsenic and methyl mercury, which are highly toxic to consumers, and might be detected in various food products.

“IAEA’s support has put us in a position where we can analyse traces of a range of residues and contaminants in food and be able to better protect consumers and meet export-market demands,” said Federico Chaverri Suarez, Head of National Directorate of Veterinary Drugs at the National Animal Health Service (SENASA), which oversees LANASEVE.

After receiving samples of beef and pork from veterinary inspectors, LANASEVE staff analyse them using nuclear technology to ensure food safety. (Photo: L. Gil Martinez/IAEA)

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