European Union Reference Laboratories
Today, consumers increasingly expect healthy and safe food and demand information concerning the origin of their food products in order to make their appropriate and individual choices. But how can you really know what was in your shampoo or breakfast this morning? How do you know the impacts of the packaging used to wrap them? With so many conflicting reports, who can you really trust to tell you?
The JRC is playing a leading role in ensuring a harmonised approach between EU Member States, industry and stakeholders. It now hosts six European Union Reference Laboratories (EU-RLs) on food and feed safety in support of EU Member States' National Reference Laboratories (NRLs) in the respective fields. It is the National Food Authorities who are responsible for the appropriate implementation of legislation. The latter is in place both to ensure the safety and quality of food products including animal feed and to ensure public health.
In order to ensure public health, potentially hazardous residues and contaminants are put under vigorous scrutiny and strict authorisation procedures for new additives and crops for feed and food production are in place. The aim of EU-RLs is to guarantee uniform detection, quantification and authorisation procedures.
- The added value of European Union Reference Laboratories
- The main responsibilities of the EU-RLs for feed and food
- A look behind the JRC's six European Union Reference Laboratories
The activities of EU-RLs cover all the areas of feed and food law and animal health. In particular, those areas where there is a need for precise analytical and diagnostic results. The main objective of the EU-RLs is to contribute to a high quality and uniformity of results obtained in the various official food and feed control laboratories throughout the European Union.
Two JRC EU-RLs support authorisation for additives for feed production and of crops to be used in food and feed that have been genetically modified i.e. containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This work is carried out in close collaboration with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the latter being responsible for risk assessment of such new substances and crops.
The main responsibilities of the EU-RLs for feed and food are to:
- Provide National Reference Laboratories (NRLs) with details of analytical methods, including reference methods;
- Organise comparative (proficiency) testing amongst the NRLs;
- Conduct training courses for the benefit of staff from the NRLs and of experts from developing countries;
- Provide scientific and technical assistance to the European Commission, especially in cases when Member States contest the results of analyses.
The work of the EU-RLs contributes to increasing European and worldwide standardisation of analytical methods. This helps to ensure that the quality of analytical data obtained in various laboratories are increasingly comparable. Methods are developed by EU-RLs and then validated through collaborative trial testing in collaboration with the NRLs and other expert laboratories in the respective field. Proficiency tests are also organised by the EU-RLs (for NRLs) and by the NRLs (for national official laboratories) to ensure the quality of data obtained in the various laboratories that are also required for European and other international monitoring databases for exposure and risk assessment.
In this way, EU-RLs are working towards the best interests of the consumer. They are helping to build confidence in the results obtained by food control laboratories and to ensure that products purchased are in compliance with legislation and have the highest food hygiene standards.
EU-RLs also represent a unique platform for information exchange on analytical methodology and quality assurance tools for control laboratories. Together with the network of NRLs, they provide a pool of knowledge and facilities that makes them best placed to handle emerging issues.
On behalf of the European Commission's Directorate General for Health and Consumers, the JRC is currently managing six EU-RLs. These are located in the Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM) in Geel, Belgium and the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP) in Ispra, Italy.
It is worth noting that the JRC-IRMM also chairs a board of expert laboratories which acts as a EU-RL on behalf of the European Commission's Directorate General Agriculture. Its purpose is to harmonise analytical methodologies for the determination of water content in poultry to ensure the quality and to prevent fraud.
- EU-RL for GMOs in food and feed
- EU-RL for feed additives
- EU-RL for food contact materials
- EU-RL for heavy metals in feed and food
- EU-RL for mycotoxins in food and feed
- EU-RL for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
Established in 2004 and part of the JRC-IHCP in Italy, this is the European Union Reference Laboratory for sampling and analytical procedures for GMOs in food and feed. It validates detection, identification and quantification methods for GMOs as part of the official European authorisation procedure in close collaboration with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). This is in support to regulation 1829/2003 on genetically modified food and feed and for implementation o the regulatory framework that has established low thresholds for the labelling of authorised GMOs in food and feed.
This EU-RL is assisted by a consortium of more than 100 national expert laboratories from the EU Member States and the European network of GMO laboratories (ENGL). This network was already established in 1999 and is of increasing importance to help deal with the challenges posed by legislative change in a scientifically complex field such as GM crops.
Industry has to apply for authorisation before placing a feed additive on the market. Again, authorisation is subject to scientific risk assessment carried out by the European Food Safety Authority. The evaluation of appropriate analytical methods is crucial for the control of the respective feed additive in the targeted animal feed.
The task of the EU-RL for feed additives, established in 2004, is to evaluate the analytical method for detection and quantification as proposed by the applicant for authorisation. The EU-RL is assisted by a network of NRLs and is located at the JRC-IRMM in Belgium.
EU legislation sets restrictions on substances used in the manufacture of materials in contact with food (e.g. packaging materials, kitchen articles, cutlery and crockery). The EU-RL for food contact materials ensures specific testing to see whether the potential transfer of constituents from these materials is in conformity with imposed limits.
This EU-RL provides analytical methods and reference substances, laboratory training on migration measurement and analytical testing, and promotes exchange of information and expertise between the EU NRLs and other national expert laboratories. Established in 2006 and officially inaugurated in December 2006, is hosted by the JRC-IHCP in Italy.
To reduce the risk to human health associated with a high heavy metal content in food and feed, maximum allowed limits in several commodities have been laid down in the European legislation. The EU-RL acts in this frame of legislation dealing with controls of heavy metal content in food and feed as a result of environmental or industrial contamination. The task of the EU-RL for heavy metals in feed and food is to facilitate the implementation of Regulation (EC) No 18812006 and Directive 2001/22/EC establishing the maximum levels of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium in different foods.
Mycotoxins are toxic metabolites produced by fungi growing in food and animal feed. As about 20 % of food products, mainly of plant origin, can be contaminated with mycotoxins, European legislation sets maximum limits to protect the consumers. To ensure that results from the laboratories monitoring food and feed fulfil the requirements of legislation, any method that is used for analysis of goods must meet established and accepted performance criteria. Therefore, the EU-RL for mycotoxins co-ordinates activities related to the development and improvement of methods of analysis for the official control of the maximum levels.
Assigned to the JRC in 2006, the EU-RL for mycotoxins is hosted by the JRC-IRMM in Belgium.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemical compounds that can result from combustion processes of organic substances or from heat processing of food – some of them are of particular concern for human health. The EU-RL assists the national laboratories of the member states by developing and validating methods of analysis of these chemicals, and by helping harmonise official controls.