Ensuring food safety has become an increasing concern for the health of consumers, strengthening of food security and promotion of international trade. Using nuclear techniques, the IAEA assists Member States with food irradiation, the detection of contaminants, verification of the origins and authenticity of food, and the establishment of international standards.

Ensuring food safety and quality has grown in importance in particular for developing countries that export foods to the major trading blocks of the developed world, or that have the potential to do so. International standards, guidelines and recommendations for the production of safe and quality-assured foods are the preconditions for such international trade. This in turn requires that the necessary analytical capacity exists to detect and monitor food contaminants, such as pesticide residues, veterinary drugs or mycotoxins, during the production process and in finished food products, and to assure the quality of the agrochemicals used.

Jointly with the FAO, the IAEA assists its Member States in developing and adopting nuclear and related techniques that provide a science-based solution to regulating food safety. It includes food irradiation but places particular emphasis on chemical residue analysis and food authenticity, and makes validated analytical methods available for official controls in laboratories world-wide.

International standards strengthen food safety worldwide

Sustainable food safety networks are crucial to improve analytical and food control systems. These networks can leverage the impact of national and regional institutions in a world where food trade is becoming increasingly complex and globalized, and where the supply chain from ‘farm to plate’ often transcends national boundaries.

Directly linked to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body established by the FAO and the World Health Organization in 1963 to develop harmonised international food standards, our work supports the development and use of food irradiation according to international norms. It also aims at strengthening international standards for the use of nuclear and related methods to verify food authenticity and measure agrochemical levels in food, such as pesticides and veterinary drug residues.

Modern applications of nuclear-related analytical techniques use stable isotopes as internal standards in quantitative analyses, while low levels of radioactive reagents are used in radio assays to detect food contamination in the laboratory and in the field. Isotope ratio measurements can also probe subtle differences in nuclear mass, providing “fingerprint” technology to trace products back to their origin and to identify whether they and their ingredients are genuine and indeed the same as stated on the label.

Food irradiation with X-rays, electron beams or gamma rays is used to ensure food safety and quality or phytosanitary security. Regulated and used on a commercial scale, it is effective at controlling spoilage, eliminating food-borne pathogens such as bacteria, and controlling post-harvest pests.

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