The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has marked World Food Safety Day this month by highlighting food safety efforts in Uganda and Costa Rica.

The IAEA and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) build country capacity in the use of nuclear, isotopic and analytical techniques to determine the safety and quality of food, including origin and authenticity. The groups also provide support to specialists on using irradiation to increase durability of food products.

The second annual World Food Safety Day on June 7 was led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and FAO.

Costa Rica is a major exporter of agricultural products, many to the United States. The IAEA and the FAO enhanced capabilities of the National Laboratory for Diagnosis and Research in Animal Health (LANASEVE) to screen a range of residues and contaminants using radio receptor assay and related techniques, and to confirm results using isotopic chromatographic and spectrometric tools.

Help for Costa Rica
Costa Rican fish producers used to send 200 samples a year to labs abroad for testing, however, LANASEVE can now analyze these in Heredia, north of San José, saving each producer at least €27, 000 ($31,000) per year.

LANASEVE will soon be able to test for toxic metals using a tool that enables the analysis of different metal species, including inorganic arsenic and methyl mercury, which are toxic to consumers, and can be present in food products.

“IAEA’s support has put us in a position where we can analyze traces of a range of residues and contaminants in food and be able to better protect consumers and meet export-market demands,” said Federico Chaverri Suarez, head of National Directorate of Veterinary Drugs at the National Animal Health Service (SENASA), which oversees LANASEVE.

More than 70 countries have benefited from support in using nuclear techniques for the control of chemical residues and contaminants.

Work in Uganda
In Uganda, the agriculture sector employs more than 70 percent of the working population and accounts for a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product with annual exports estimated at $1.8 billion.

IAEA and FAO support the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) and partner institutions through lab instrumentation and by training personnel to detect and monitor hazards, including veterinary drug and pesticide residues in food, based on national and international regulations.

Ongoing support to Uganda’s food safety labs includes testing on a broader range of hazards, including toxic metals, using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and confirmation of volatile substances with isotopic chromatographic-spectrometric techniques.

The UNBS works with the Directorate of Government Analytical Laboratory (DGAL), Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) and other institutions to carry out regular independent sampling and testing of market-bound animal and plant products for residues and contaminants.

UNBS is also verifying that relief food supplied, especially to vulnerable populations and those at risk during emergencies such as the COVID-19 lockdown, is safe and of high quality.

Labs in the countryside have also received support. One example is a mobile laboratory van used to quickly screen milk products for residues and contaminants followed by confirmation in a lab setting.

“In Uganda, the issue of food safety has gone a notch higher with the establishment of modern food safety laboratories at the UNBS by the Government of Uganda and through the technical capacity in food safety built with support from the IAEA. This has put Uganda at a higher level of preparedness in the region, and this capacity is being utilized to train food safety experts from other countries from Africa and other regions,” said Deus Mubangizi, manager of the UNBS Testing Laboratories.

Opening of lab building

IAEA DG Rafael Mariano Grossi (right) and Austrian Federal Minister for EU and International Affairs Alexander Schallenberg (Photo: IAEA)

The IAEA has also opened a lab building to increase capacity to tackle challenges related to climate change and food safety and assist countries to fight and prevent zoonotic diseases.

The building will house three of the five labs run jointly by the IAEA and the FAO: the Animal Production and Health Laboratory, Food and Environmental Protection Lab and Soil and Water Management and Crop Nutrition Lab.

They will have twice the space than what is currently available at the IAEA Seibersdorf site outside Vienna. It will have equipment including mass spectrometers and next generation gene sequencing platforms.

“The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the threat that zoonotic diseases pose to human health and wellbeing. It has also underscored the importance of the IAEA nuclear applications laboratories in helping our member states,” said Director General of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi.

“The Food and Environmental Protection Laboratory will be better positioned to help countries to control chemical contaminants in food, ensure the authenticity and safety of food and trace sources of foodborne disease outbreaks. This protects both producers and consumers and helps countries to export food.”

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