Wageningen Food Safety Research: the new name has caught on quickly

Published on
February 24, 2021

Until 1 June 2019, RIKILT was the only research institution in the WUR family that had still retained its old name. Following the merger with the Laboratory for Feed and Food Safety of the Netherlands Food and Consumer Safety Authority (NVWA), the institute is now called Wageningen Food Safety Research. This name has become widely known, remarks director Robert van Gorcom.

“Because we had worked towards this merger for years, we kept the name RIKILT for all this time. In my e-mail signature, I still state that our old name has changed to Wageningen Food Safety Research, but I can now delete this line. My contacts are now familiar with the new name.”

The merger was long overdue, explains Robert van Gorcom: “The NVWA lab mainly performed routine research into feed safety, while the RIKILT lab was mainly a knowledge lab and developed new analysis methods. Critical mass was a problem in both laboratories - together you can do more. We’re now working more efficiently; we still have to realise part of the efficiency gain, but we’re taking advantage of some of it already.”

Less routine work, more detective work

The research that Wageningen Food Safety Research performs into the safety of food and animal feed falls for a large part under statutory research tasks. In addition, the institute also collaborates in large strategic research programmes at Wageningen University & Research, from protein transition and transition to the circular economy to research into data-driven and high-tech innovations. Van Gorcom: “Food safety appears to be a very well-defined theme, but it does contain a huge variety of subthemes. For example, we work together with Customs on the development of hand scanners to find drugs in luggage. You can also use the same technology in shops to check whether there is real olive oil in a bottle. You don’t have to open the bottle any more to do this. These kinds of developments mean that inspectors can perform a lot more measurements on location. Suspect samples then end up in our lab. For us this means that we’ve got less routine research to do, and more detective work.”

To guarantee impartiality, the institute is not allowed to work directly for companies. “But we do work together with them in EU research programmes and national public-private cooperation programmes that don’t result in competition-sensitive results. We also work with other campus inhabitants. This cooperation is very valuable as it enables us to closely follow developments in the private sector and it can provide companies with new analytical tools for food and animal feed.”

Sharing facilities

A special Biosafety Level 3 Lab for research into food safety is still on the wish list. In this kind of lab, it is possible to carry out research into very risky food-related pathogens such as COVID-19 under strict precautionary measures. “We’ve submitted an application for this via the EU recovery fund”, according to Van Gorcom, who adds here that the limit for additional construction is then reached: “Construction is expensive. Moreover, we can make use of other research facilities on campus. For example, for spectroscopic research we’ll use an NMR scanner in Magnify, the new facility for research with magnetic resonance. Unilever is also using it. It’s good to share this kind of facility with one another as it means you can use expensive equipment much more efficiently.”

Lasting impact of COVID-19

Since last March, approximately half the personnel work at home and the other half on location. We have ensured that the people in the labs can maintain a safe distance from one another. Where necessary, we’ve installed partitions, but we do try to avoid these as much as possible. For example, if you place a partition between two fume cupboards, you change the air circulation which can result in new problems.”

According to Van Gorcom, COVID-19 will have a lasting impact: “We won’t return to 100 per cent working on location. But I’ll be happy when everyone can work on location again.”