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The production of shellfish is an important economic activity in the European Union with considerable net value for the economy. The presence of marine toxins in oysters, mussels and other shellfish can affect human health and cause serious financial losses to the aquaculture industry. Shellfish can take in toxins from polluted water or if an algal bloom develops in certain weather conditions. Accurate and fast testing methods for the presence of biotoxins in shellfish, are therefore important for Europe's economy and the health of its citizens.

Some test methods do exist but some classes of toxin are hard to estimate using these available methods. Moreover, many methods use tests on mice or rats and it is EU policy to phase out animal testing. A more systematic approach to develop fast and reliable methods is being sought in a new three-year Specific Targeted Research Project, BIOTOX. It includes the main marine laboratories in Europe, and will be overseen by a panel of experts.


The class of lipophilic (lipid soluble) toxins is to assay accurately using current techniques - some methods work for some of them, but many remain hard to quantify, or even to detect. BIOTOX aims to develop and validate new methods to confirm the presence of lipophilic toxins in shellfish, using separation methods based on liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry (LC-MS), and preferably, alternative, rapid assays. Some of these methods can already be used to detect certain shellfish toxins.

Methodologies need to be made more reliable, more widely applicable and faster, so that large batches of samples can be tested quickly. Standardised methods to extract test material from suspect shellfish will be developed, together with confirmatory analyses that can cover a range of possible toxins, including those that have not yet been completely characterised. They will form the basis of a universal test procedure for use by the industry and by the control laboratories. Tests developed will require validation and comparison against the current procedures that use mouse samples. A range of certified reference materials will be produced.


BIOTOX is also looking at the problem of knowing when algal blooms become a hazard. Early warning tools for detecting the presence of toxins will use advanced methods based on gene expression. A functional approach will determine suitable genes that will bind to microarrays of commercial chips, leading to a high-capacity, high-speed identification system. A traceability system for affected shellfish that may be on their way to market will be developed.

Another line of enquiry is to clean up contaminated shellfish so that they are fit to eat. The chosen example is the DSP lipophilic toxin that can infect farmed mussels. The aim is to purify such shellfish in a few days, taking into account the effects of temperature and the food they are given.

The detection and depuration methods that BIOTOX develops will be incorporated into HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point System) for standardised monitoring of biotoxins in shellfish. The European Community Reference laboratory and several national equivalents will ensure that the methods percolate through to all relevant labs. Publicity will also ensure that consumers have confidence in the safety of shellfish.

Taken together, these results will help to ensure that European food is of consistently high quality and that the producers of shellfish can deliver a safe product and make a reasonable profit.

List of Partners

  • The Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research (The Netherlands)
  • Marine Institute (Ireland)
  • RIKILT Institute for Food Safety (The Netherlands)
  • The Norwegian School of Veterinary Science (Norway)
  • National Veterinary Institute (Norway)
  • National University of Ireland (Ireland)
  • University of Modena (Italy)
  • Food Safety Authority of Ireland (Ireland)
  • Scientific Institute of Public Health (Belgium)
  • Oyster Creek Seafoods Limited (Ireland)
  • Biosense Laboratories AS (Norway)
  • Institut Franšais de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la Mer (France)
Full title:
Development of costeffective tools for risk management and traceability systems for marine biotoxins in seafood
Contract n░:
Project co-ordinator:
Jacob de Boer, The Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research,
EC Scientific Officer:
Maria Spulber,
EU contribution:
€ 3M
Specific Targeted Research Project

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Last update: 06 December 2007 | Top