Food safety is currently one of the most important challenges confronting consumers, producers and distributors. It is also an issue of extreme interest to scientists and experts due to its great health, economic, and legal consequences. With this in mind, an EU-funded project has created a Centre of Excellence to address the challenges surrounding food safety.
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Most chemical contaminants which find their way into the food chain have been present in the environment for a long time, and many of them occur naturally, although the significance and presence of many are only now being revealed. Researchers say there is an increasing need for reliable data on the occurrence of these existing and emerging food pollutants in order to perform a valid quantitative risk assessment of human exposure.
Such is the potential threat to health that food safety is seen as a global challenge, and one too large to be met by countries acting alone.
With this in mind, the Cefser project - funded by the EU's FP7 programme - set out to create a unique Centre of Excellence in Food Safety and Emerging Risks at the Faculty of Technology, University of Novi Sad, Serbia.
The Centre, which incorporates the faculty's laboratory for chemical contaminants in food and the environment (Labchemcont), is aiming to become a hub for European research projects working in the area of food safety and emerging risks.
Labchemcont is already an internationally recognised research lab focusing on detecting chemical contaminants in food. However, the existing equipment at Labchemcont could not satisfy increasingly stringent regulatory standards.
By utilising EU funds to purchase highly sophisticated analytical instruments - such as an 'Ultra performance liquid chromatograph' (UPLC), the latest state-of-the-art food safety system - and to upgrade existing equipment, the Centre has already improved its research capacity to a level where it can effectively work within a network of advanced EU institutions. As a result, Cefser has integrated Labchemcont and the Faculty of Technology into the European Research Area (ERA), a first step in building global partnerships aimed at improving food safety.
"With this new UPLC system, the research agenda of the Cefser lab has been broadened, and the research team is now ready to tackle new analytical challenges in the food safety area, some of which have never been investigated in Serbia or even in the wider Western Balkans region," says project coordinator Prof. Biljana Skrbic. "The research agenda now embraces the whole range of pollutants found either in food commodities or the environment, including regulated contaminants and new, emerging ones."
Harnessing human potential
The EU funding has also been applied to improve the skills and career development of the research team. This has been reinforced through the hiring of four young researchers back in April 2009. The new and existing staff have also benefitted from secondments and visits from experienced researchers from other countries within the ERA.
"Visits to the Cefser Lab by researchers from internationally revered EU institutions have provided great opportunities for our own staff, including the newly employed members, to experience advanced training," notes Prof. Skrbic.
The improved research capacity of the centre and its staff has led to the involvement of the team in several regional initiatives and proposals of multi-partner FP7 projects. The development of such strategic partnerships through EU-wide networking is seen as a hugely important step towards Cefser's goal of establishing itself as a modern laboratory capable of making a significant contribution to the ERA.
These partnerships will also provide Cefser with the capabilities and experience to meet the increasing challenges of food safety and provide the citizens of Europe and beyond with the information and security they need.
"Cefser has already uncovered the presence of some contaminants in food commodities from the Serbian market, which is very important for the risk assessment of dietary exposure in the population," says Prof. Skrbic. "The centre has also been active in raising awareness of research in food safety and quality, acting as [a focal] point for knowledge transfer to the Serbian control authorities and information to the general public."