The Growing Need for Stringent Food Safety Testing

Prior to the early 1900s, no real need for food safety testing had been established and such practices were still to be introduced. Perhaps the earliest occasion on which such a need was recognised came in 1932, when a royal commission tasked with investigating the incidence of tuberculosis in dairy cattle reported that some 40% of all milk was infected with the offending bacillus and that the disease was responsible for about 2 500 deaths among humans each year. The findings of the commission led to the introduction of tuberculin screening tests for both cattle and milk products.

It was with the outbreak of World War 2 and the resulting shortage of fresh produce that processed alternatives became essential, and this led to the development of new products such as dried egg, powdered milk, dehydrated potato and a popular brand of pre-cooked, canned meat made form pork shoulder and ham, known as Spam. Subsequent incidences of contamination with organisms, such as Salmonella and E. coli, eventually sparked the need for manufacturers to conduct microbial screening of foodstuffs on a much wider scale.

Since then, the processed food industry has grown rapidly and the introduction of various additives, including preservatives, emulsifying agents, artificial sweeteners and colourants, as well as the recognition of the allergenic nature of certain proteins, has led to the need for a far more comprehensive programme of food safety testing.

Most governments have introduced standards that limit the permitted concentration of artificial additives, allergens and microorganisms, while imposing strict labelling conditions that ensure that the consumer is fully informed of the contents of all processed foods, whether they are frozen, freeze-dried, canned, bottled or packaged. With the introduction of such stringent requirements and the huge diversity of processed products, the demand for new and more accurate screening procedures has grown in parallel.

Given the huge demands of a burgeoning population, the need for speed is as acute as that for accuracy, and this has required developers to explore emerging new technologies in the quest for innovative new applications.  In terms of food safety testing, the requirements vary between product categories such as edible oils and fats, dairy products, beverages and processed meats. However, in general, most will require to be examined for their biological and chemical content. In the latter case, this may include not just intentional additives, but also accidental contaminants,

Testing requirements have become more specific. For instance, in most countries, it is no longer sufficient to display the total fat content of a product on its label. Instead, this must be further broken down to reveal the proportions of saturated and unsaturated fats. Warnings advising consumers of the possible presence of potential allergens, such as egg, nuts or gluten, have now become equally important.

In most large companies, the testing is undertaken in-house and will often require them to maintain well-equipped laboratories and a substantial number of trained technicians. By contrast, many smaller companies outsource this responsibility to a dedicated food safety testing laboratory. In either case, the need is for both equipment and reagents that are of the highest quality and designed to generate accurate results with minimal delay.

In South Africa, IEPSA is the leading supplier of world-class analytical equipment to the food safety testing industry.

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