RIKILT Wageningen UR is gearing up to help laboratories in Chile improve food safety monitoring.
The National Reference Laboratory which the Chilean government plans to set up will – like RIKILT in the Netherlands – detect residues and contaminants in human food and animal feed. If high concentrations are found, the laboratories will advise on an action plan.
Reference laboratories ‘best in class’
Food safety checks in the Netherlands are generally performed by commercial organisations, but the government monitors the proceedings and takes random samples. The EU has, in addition, set up a system of ‘best-in-class’ reference laboratories to develop new testing methods, give advice, guarantee the quality of government monitoring and arbitrate in disputes between the public and private sector. Chile has its sights set on a similar system.
RIKILT one of Europe’s biggest reference laboratories
National reference laboratories perform 33 tasks under EU law. RIKILT performs 19 of these for the Netherlands. RIKILT director Robert van Gorcom explains: ‘There are very few institutes in Europe that are authorised to perform as many tasks as NRL.’ RIKILT’s main job is to monitor the presence of diverse chemical substances, genetically modified organisms and animal by-products in human food and animal feed. Most of the microbial tasks are carried out by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment and the Central Veterinary Institute of Wageningen UR. The laboratory of the Netherlands Food and Consumer Safety Authority (now housed in the same building as RIKILT) is the designated NRL for pesticide residues.
Coming to the rescue after a dioxin incident
RIKILT director Robert van Gorcom continues: ‘The Chilean government still needs to decide on the tasks they want the reference laboratories to perform. I imagine that dioxin-monitoring will be one of them along with screening for pesticides, marine toxins, mycotoxins and possibly auxiliary agents used in livestock breeding, such as growth enhancers and antibiotics.’ Chile was confronted with a dioxin incident in 2008, so it is no coincidence that Van Gorcom mentions dioxins first. RIKILT experts were flown in at that time to find the source of the contamination and to advise the government on how to tackle the problem. ‘That helped to lay the foundation for the collaboration with Chilean businesses, knowledge institutes and government agencies in the Wageningen UR Chile consortium,’ says Van Gorcom with well-deserved pride.
Other countries want reference laboratories too
Chile is not the only country that is consulting Wageningen UR on ways of setting up a system of National Reference Laboratories for the speedy detection of possible food contamination. Food safety is high on the agenda of countries that have developed rapidly in recent years and want to export food to Europe, the USA, Japan and Australia, where safety standards are stringent and rigorously enforced. In addition, national governments want to be able provide their own population with food guarantees. ‘These developments are opening up opportunities for RIKILT to sell its knowledge internationally. The experience we gain in Chile in the years ahead will prove invaluable,’ adds Van Gorcom.
Blueprint for NRL
Van Gorcom explains the steps that need to be taken to set up a system of reference laboratories. ‘First, the government has to decide on the domains for the reference labs. The next step is to select the laboratories that perform best in these domains and meet all the conditions. It is unlikely that commercial labs will want to be reference labs, because they would then be prohibited from performing certain other tasks. As an independent foreign institute, we will choose the best candidates, partly on the basis of audits. We will then assess the knowledge and expertise that the laboratories already possess and find out what they lack. After that, we will devise training programmes to raise the labs to a level at which they can actually start operating as NRLs. We will start all this in two or three pilots.’
Wageningen UR Chile
The establishment of NRLs in Chile will be coordinated by the Chilean Agency for Food Safety and Quality in association with Wageningen UR Chile, the Chilean Centre of Excellence in food research led by Wageningen UR. In the next ten years, Wageningen UR Chile, launched in July 2012, will carry out research that will contribute to the sustainable production of healthy and appealing food in Chile. Chile is the biggest exporter of fruit and the second-biggest exporter of salmon in the world. It is also well-known as a wine producer.