According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 200 diseases are caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances.
Since consumers cannot always see, taste or smell the threat of contaminated food, food safety laboratories around the world serve as a line of defense to prevent and halt the spread of harmful agents of diseases. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has been supporting laboratories worldwide to help detect, monitor and track contaminants and agrochemical residues in foods.
To date, IAEA support for food safety testing has focused on the detection and control of chemical residues such as veterinary drugs, pesticides and contaminants. Many projects have included microbiological testing and pathogen detection, components that are expected to be expanded in the future.
“Through routine testing, surveillance and involvement in epidemiological investigations, food safety laboratories can detect pathogens’ deviation from normal situations and identify emerging pathogens,” said A.S.M Saifullah, Chief Scientific Officer at the Institute of Food and Radiation Biology (IFRB) of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission. “Food safety laboratories can help in preparation of and response to zoonotic diseases, including in emergencies.”
Food-borne diseases and zoonoses
Some food-borne diseases such as salmonellosis, caused by the salmonella bacteria, are considered zoonoses — infectious diseases that are transmissible between animals and people. Unsafe practices on farms, improper food handling and contamination during manufacturing or distribution are some of the paths for salmonella, along with other pathogens, to reach the food we eat. “For many zoonotic diseases, the medium critical for transmission is food,” said James Sasanya, a Food Safety Specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Center of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) agrees. In July 2020, it published Preventing the next pandemic – Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, a report reflecting on the causes of COVID-19 and other zoonoses. The report found that of all new and emerging human infectious diseases, some 75 per cent are transmitted from other animals to people, and that most zoonoses happen indirectly, for example, via the food system.
Animals can appear healthy despite having a disease, but once the disease is transmitted to humans, it can manifest and have significant health consequences. “It is important for countries to be prepared and conduct regular food safety testing for zoonoses and other microbial hazards,” Sasanya said. “Who knows what, where or when the next pandemic will be. When looking at potential pandemics and endemics, it’s critical to cover food safety appropriately.”
The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre has been key to supporting many countries in establishing, maintaining and enhancing their food safety laboratories. In Bangladesh, for example, the FAO and the IAEA supported the development of the Veterinary Drug Residue Analysis Laboratory (VDRAL) at the IFRB. Through IAEA technical cooperation projects, FAO–IAEA experts have trained VDRAL scientists on how to test for a range of food hazards and to screen and verify residues and contaminants in food.
FAO–IAEA experts have provided VDRAL with technical guidance for the development, validation and implementation of analytical methods. “VDRAL now uses different isotopic and nuclear-based analytical tools and techniques for the determination of antimicrobial residues and mycotoxins in foods of animal and plant origin,” Saifullah said, explaining that efforts are also under way to build capacity for food microbiological testing, including aspects of food-borne zoonoses.
In the past, Bangladesh outsourced food tests to other countries. Today, analysts at VDRAL can use screening tools like rapid radio receptor assays and isotopic verification methods to determine veterinary antimicrobial residues and mycotoxins in foods. More than 3000 food samples, including eggs, milk, chicken and shrimp, are analyzed annually to generate residue data. This data enables regulatory institutions, such as the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority, to act to protect public health and improve the country’s food safety control system.
“It is pleasing to see a laboratory starting with limited capacity to be able to provide food safety analytical support for the country, as well as to attract significant government support to ensure its sustainability,” said Gerald Cirilo Reyes, an IAEA Programme Management Officer for Bangladesh.
Food safety networks
Bangladesh’s IFRB collaborates with other food safety laboratories in Asia and the Pacific through the IAEA-coordinated Food Safety Asia Network. Food safety laboratories prevent food-borne incidences by controlling hazards through routine testing, monitoring and surveillance. But food safety systems aren’t flawless. “Incidences do occur, and it is important that institutions and countries are prepared, taking no hazard — whether it is chemical, physical or microbiological, like zoonoses — for granted,” Sasanya said.
Laboratories in the Food Safety Asia Network share information and analytical methods, as well as participating in proficiency testing schemes. This is critical to address regional food safety concerns and could be developed into an avenue for responding to food safety emergencies.
The Joint FAO/IAEA Center has also supported the establishment and strengthening of food safety networks in other regions, such as Latin America and Africa. An IAEA project on food safety emergency response is developing isotopic and complementary rapid analytical methods at the Joint FAO/IAEA Center’s laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria, and training network members to implement them in the field. “Such lab networks could in the future help countries respond to food safety emergencies, including food-borne zoonoses,” said Sasanya.