European Union targets food quality, safety


Industry pinpoints research areas for $20 million GoodFood project

By Genevieve Oger

Food scares of recent years such as madcow disease, listeria and now bird flu have led food regulators to become increasingly picky about what ends up on their citizen’s dinner tables. To ensure food risk is kept to a minimum, the European Union has funded a scientific project designed to put micro and nanotechnolgy to work in detecting toxins or pathogens in food before it gets into local kitchens.

“Many microtechnologies have been developed for home appliances, the environment and the automotive industry,” said Carles Cane, coordinator of the GoodFood Project and microtechnologist at Spain’s National Microelectronics Center. “But they haven’t been used in the agro-food industry very much and there are quite a few medical applications that can be adapted to address things like food safety and food quality.”

The $20 million GoodFood Project is looking at seven areas of food safety and quality, including the presence of antibiotic residues in milk, optimal growing conditions for wine, detecting toxic fungi in food and freshness control for fish and fruits, among others.

Food businesses determined the areas of research, choosing sectors where testing for food safety could be improved. Swiss multinational Nestle came on board because it was interested in finding a better way to test for antibiotics in milk used in its many dairy products; their presence can lead to germ resistance in human antibiotic treatments.

Onsite testing at farms prevents contaminated milk from mixing with other milk in transport trucks.
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“International laws impose maximum residue limits in milk,” said Jean-Marc Diserens, senior research scientist at Nestle in Lausanne. “But our tolerance is zero when it comes to making baby products.”

The idea is to create an inexpensive portable testing device that would let truck drivers picking up milk at different farms test the milk onsite before allowing it in the truck, so as to avoid mass contamination of the day’s load. Currently, two testing systems are used. The first takes three hours and can detect three families of antibiotics. The second test detects penicillin-related antibiotics in about five minutes, thanks to a dip-stick placed in a vial of milk.

“That test costs about three euros ($3.62), but it’s also a question of time, because every minute saved in the pickup process will be money saved for the transport company,” Diserens said.

The team led by Guy Voirin, head of biosensing in the Nanotechnology and Life Sciences Division at the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology, is looking to develop a cheaper and faster way to check for residue from several antibiotics. Voirin has designed an optical microsystem capable of detecting concentrations of the sulfapyridine antibiotic as low as 10 nanograms per milliliter, much lower than European regulations require.

“So far, we are able to detect one antibiotic, but are hoping to increase that to 10 or more,” Voirin said, adding that the long-term plan is to adapt the testing device to other foods, such as honey, as a way of amortizing research costs.

Portable devices are used at dairies to ensure milk is antibiotic-free. Photos courtesy of Nestle
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GoodFood is also testing a means to improve wine production through automatic nodes and sensors capable of analyzing vine growth, leaf temperature, soil moisture and air temperature and humidity. The system is being assessed in Montepaldi, Italy, at a research farm owned by the University of Florence. The information collected by the sensors in the vineyard is meant to help managers make the most informed decisions regarding harvesting, watering and other vine treatment to ensure the best quality wine.

Generally speaking, GoodFood aims to take the analysis away from the laboratory, to get it closer to the food, either where it’s grown or where it’s being transported for consumption. Most of all, the solutions found have to be cheap and easy to use.

“The closer you get to the food producer, the more inexpensive and simple to use these tools need to be,” said Diserens. “We can’t force farmers to use complicated devices or to invest a lot of money in a detection system.”

Most of the tools being developed by the GoodFood Project still need to mature. Once the EU initiative wraps up in mid-2007, the majority of the projects will be at the prototype stage. “Then it will be time for industrialists to take over and to develop real applications,” Cane said.