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Safer food through better monitoring of animal feed

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High-profile food scares, such as the outbreaks of mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease and dioxin contamination episodes in recent years, have put a spotlight on a growing concern for food safety: the need to ensure that animal feed – an expanding global trade – is free from contamination. The European Union (EU)-funded project QSAFFE is working on faster and better ways of checking for contaminated feed.
“Some of the problems in European food protection over the last 10 to 20 years have started with contaminated animal feed,” says the project coordinator of QSAFFE, Prof Chris Elliott from Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom.

“The QSAFFE team developed systems for carrying out broad spectrum analysis of feed materials – for instance, where the feed materials came from, what the commodity is and what the likely risks are associated with that commodity coming from that particular origin,” explains Prof Elliott.

Feed samples from across the supply chain are currently being sent to laboratories to check for contaminants. “This is quite an expensive and time-consuming operation. Moreover, quite often by the time the lab has produced its results, the respective feed material has already gone into the feed supply chain,” he adds.

The QSAFFE team focused on technologies that can give a much quicker result by bypassing the need to send samples to labs. “Testing can be performed at feed mills or even points of entry where feed materials enter another country,” says Prof Elliott. 

The researchers developed prototype hand-held devices for detecting contamination by adapting the technologies created in response to the 9/11 attacks and the need for greater vigilance at airports and other public spaces. “Instead of looking for narcotics and explosives, we are looking for chemical contaminants,” comments Prof Elliott. The technologies developed by the research team were tested by the project partners, which represent a wide range of European and international institutes and research centres with expertise in the area as well as with strong links to regulators and industry. The project team is now holding dissemination workshops and training days to show people how to use the hand-held devices.

The project team also designed a system whereby end-users can verify the origin of a product by uploading its ‘fingerprint’ – i.e. data from a scan – onto a database and getting a fast and accurate analysis based on a comparison with other fingerprints in the system. For example, distillers grains, a by-product of the alcohol industry, is very susceptible to contamination. “With our system we can determine the country, and even the region, where the material/product comes from,” says Prof Elliott.

“We are now in the process of drawing up guidelines for industry and regulators on how to carry out targeted and better testing of feed contaminations in the future,” concludes Prof. Elliott.

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