European project develops new technologies to detect food contaminants

October 13, 2005

Brussels, 12 Oct 2005

The EU funded BioCop project is bringing together research expertise on new techniques to screen a variety of foodstuffs for multiple chemical contaminants, including pesticides, toxins and drugs. The results should help ensure that any hidden dangers in foods are detected long before they reach consumers.

Chemical contaminant monitoring in foodstuffs is a highly important and complex issue, resulting in a huge investment of time and effort by regulatory and industrial laboratories. As demands from consumers and regulators for improved food quality and safety increase, a radical improvement in the ability to monitor for many classes of chemical contaminants present in cereals, meats, seafood and processed foods has been recognised as necessary.

A recent EU funded study reflects this growing public concern over contaminants in food: out of the 23,000 people asked abut their perceptions of the safety of food, more than 60 per cent indicated that they were 'very concerned about the safety of food' with regard to chemical contaminants. Though advances have been made in making the European food chain the safest in the world, consumers are clearly not yet convinced. This has been acknowledged by the EU authorities, and the restoration of consumer confidence is a key part in the White Paper on Food Safety.

BioCop is a new Integrated Project funded by the European Commission with ten million euro under the food quality and safety thematic area of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The five year project, coordinated by Professor Chris Elliott from the Veterinary Sciences Division of Queens University, Belfast, involves 33 partners from research centres, regulatory agencies and industry, from 15 European countries, as well as Canada.

According to the BioCop team, the total number of crop protective ingredients produced worldwide each year is around one thousand. The array of licensed therapeutic drugs available numbers over 2,000, and several hundred illegal preparations are believed to exist. Add to that the thousands of chemicals with endocrine disrupting activity, plus the complexities of natural toxin formation, the true scope of the difficulties facing chemical contaminant monitoring becomes apparent.

The project is intended to solve the problems associated with the ability to monitor and prevent chemical contaminants in food products. The bio-analytical approaches proposed are highly innovative but realistic, and aim at supplying regulators, consumers and industry with long-term solutions to these complex issues. BioCop targets include pesticides and environmental contaminants, including heavy metals, natural toxins, therapeutic drugs and endocrine disrupters. The final goal is to increase the trust of European consumer in the food supply chain.

The project will determine the effectiveness of emerging life science tools such as proteomics and transcriptomics in delivering more reliable means of assessing the degree of food contamination. A range of new technologies, such as optical biosensors, electrochemical biosensors and DNA sensors, will be utilised to harness the potential of the 'omics' techniques. These new approaches are based on measuring effect rather than on measuring single target compound concentrations. The 'biomarker and fingerprinting' concept is key to this strategy.

Substantial advances in sample preparation will be achieved using novel procedures, and renowned experts from all classes of chemical contaminants will oversee the project to ensure fit-for-purpose tests are developed and validated to the required standards.

The training of scientists from external laboratories on using the new tools is included within the project. The small and medium enterprise (SME) cluster in the project will also ensure full exploitation of all developed technologies.

Consumer groups will be punctually informed about progress in the project, and their contribution is foreseen through feedback mechanisms.

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CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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