FQN spoke with John Lee, manager of the food segment at Agilent, during the Recent Advances in Food Analysis (RAFA) Conference in Prague last month.
Lee said authenticity testing is an area of increasing interest as well as testing of consistency of food.
For example in the manufacturing facility to make sure the raw material is the same as it was last week.
“In terms of authenticity, obviously the testing is driven primarily by governments and the horse meat scandal is one example but there are so many. One of the biggest is probably around honey and the complex food network means people try to avoid duty and mislabel food,” he said.
“Unscrupulous honey brokers are moving honey around and declaring it as coming from a different country than it is from and people have gone to jail for that.”
Lee said there is a lot of interest from the FDA and European bodies such as the UK government and the Elliott Report which recommended scaling up laboratory expertise.
“At Agilent we spend a lot of time developing methods for authenticity, mass spectrometry features quite a lot there because if you are doing forensic type testing you need to know what some of the markers of authenticity actually are to be confident you have a reliable test and to potentially trace back the source of the fraud that has been done,” he said.
“Authenticity is also a food safety issue because we had the cumin crisis recently with spices, the issue was some of the adulteration involved peanut contamination. Peanuts are allergens so that is a food safety issue.”
Lee said the more core applications are pesticides and veterinary drug analysis which is relatively mature but the technology and the way that labs do the testing is changing to a broader scope of analysis.
“The technology now, not least from Agilent, is allowing them to do that, it is not easy to develop a multi-residue method with say 450 compounds in one analysis,” he said.
“So there is a lot of work being done in control laboratories, government laboratories and contract laboratories but it is definitely required by a company like Agilent to help with that.
“[This is] so people can get those methods up and running as quickly as possible and have confidence that they have a method that should work.”
When asked about differences in geography Lee said in Europe, infrastructures that organize testing are mature but pointed to China as an example of change.
“In China there’s an impressive renaissance in the way food safety is approached and they really are investing and reorganizing their infrastructure in an impressive way. The CDC is a large organisation in China, within which you have the food safety authority which is tasked with risk assessment but also with actually developing methods where they see the risk.
"A lot of this renaissance is seeing a lot of new reference methods being developed by people like the food safety authority.
“Most people would think of GB methods, that’s the Chinese standard for food safety, some of which are mandatory, some of which are voluntary, but they are updating those and also rationalizing many of the older methods.”
Lee said while people think of Europe and the US as big consumers of dietary supplements, a lot of production comes from countries like China.
“So they are also investing a lot of effort in developing new methods for quality control and safety assessment of dietary supplements,” he said.
“This year the China FDA promulgated a new pharmacopeia and it has a lot of methods and will continue to develop marrying with some of the new technology companies like Agilent are developing.
“Such as UHPLC that makes runs faster, a lot of pharmacopeia methods around the world are pretty old fashioned and slow.
“China is pushing to develop faster methods but also methods with more selectivity, so the use for example of two dimensional chromatography, which is something we have invested a lot of time and effort on with the Infinity 1290-2 system. Making 2D-LC something you can do routinely and easily.”
Regulation as food safety driver
Regulation is the key driver of food safety testing, according to Lee.
“New regulation of course is organized by governments and governments listen to consumer concerns, so the Elliott Report is a classic case of that chain of events,” he said.
“But in the end it is primarily regulation and surveillance schemes that need to be put in place to enforce those regulations that drives food testing.
“That said, the food market also includes a lot of research and if we are talking about authenticity there is a lot of funding again from governments responding to consumer concerns to develop new methods.
“Chris Elliott said we need more reliable methods and obviously somebody needs to be funded to develop that.”
Lee said Professor Jana Hajslova University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague and RAFA co-chair, uses the firm’s equipment to research into new ways of doing food authenticity.
“She did a project recently on testing the authenticity of saffron using GC-MS and not only was she able to differentiate between different geographies where it had come from. She could then identify the chemical markers that were contributing to that chemometric model if you like.
“She uses the Agilent software which is called Mass Profiler Professional which is a key differentiator in helping customers to create these models that allow you to tell the difference between saffron from Turkey and saffron from China.”
- Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with John Lee which will be published tomorrow (Tuesday).