The Occurrence and Control of Common Food Contaminants

The risk of contaminants in our food is not a new phenomenon. It is, in fact, one that has existed, quite naturally, since life on earth began. It is a problem, however, that has started to become more acute since man began, in earnest, to cultivate plants and animals specifically for the table.

Today, faced with feeding a world population now measured in billions, the requirement for intensive methods of agriculture and animal husbandry, together with the increased dependence upon processed foodstuffs, has seen that risk escalated to the point where some degree of contamination is virtually unavoidable. The role of those responsible for supplying our edibles has therefore become to ensure that the concentrations of the more harmful food contaminants are kept within limits that have been established as safe.

The sources of these unwanted substances may be divided into two main categories. In the first of these, the agents are of natural origin and may have gained access directly from the environment during the growth or rearing stage. Alternatively, the offending substances may have been introduced or even formed during some subsequent treatment of edibles, such as pre-cooking, packaging, bottling, canning or freezing.

As was the case with the difference in their origins, there are also two possible ways in which the physical nature of these food contaminants may differ. Simply put, they may be either inanimate and strictly chemical in nature or microbiological with the ability to produce harmful toxins. In the developed countries, intensive quality control measures will normally have been defined and applied, both during production and processing.

As a result of their nature, it may be desirable and, in some instances, necessary to introduce a variety of additives into processed foodstuffs. These include artificial flavourings, colorants, stabilisers, emulsifiers, sweeteners and preservative. The choice of such additives is confined to those specified as acceptable by health authorities, as are their permitted maximum concentrations.

Strict health and safety legislation governing the identity and permitted concentrations of food contaminants and additives has now been introduced in most countries, and legal requirements for the labelling of all packaged and processed edibles are also now enforced and subject to constant revisions. As a consequence of these stipulations, the demand for sensitive, accurate and rapid analytical procedures that may be used in quality control procedures has grown almost exponentially, and a number of advanced, new technologies are now being applied for this purpose.

Each sector of the food and beverage industry tends to be subject to a particular subset of food contaminants and therefore tends to have one or two unique quality control requirements. The developers of QC instrumentation for the industry must typically address the needs of companies involved in the production of dairy products, edible oils, wine and beer, to name just a few. High production volumes have created the need for batched, rather than individual, testing and wherever possible, for a procedure that is, at least, partially automated.

In South Africa, these vital needs are being met by our company, the nation’s leading supplier of laboratory equipment and reagents for use in food analysis, as well as in medicine, pharmaceutical production and many other industries. Sourcing world-class products from leading manufacturers, we at IEPSA offer everything for the control of food contaminants.

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