First, animals eating pet food contaminated with melamine got sick in 2007. Then the next year, hundreds of thousands of babies in China drinking milk tainted by the plastics and fertilizer ingredient fell ill, and six died. When scientists in industry, regulatory agencies, and academia started searching for melamine where nobody had looked for it before, it took just under a month to develop the first analytical methods to detect it.
Now, instrument maker Thermo Fisher Scientific aims to do better. In April, the U.S. company opened a research lab just outside Frankfurt charged with developing analytical techniques for emerging food crises within “one to two weeks,” said Klaus Mittendorf, the Food Safety Response Center’s manager. Officially, the center’s mission is to “rapidly mobilize during widespread, chemical-contamination-based food safety crises to help government institutions, independent labs, and food companies isolate and control the contamination.”
The lab is something of an experiment. “We are an instrument company, so this is a departure from our tradition,” acknowledged Juergen Srega, Thermo Fisher’s vice president and general manager of global products, at an opening event. “We are used to thinking about one equipment applied to all sorts of markets,” Srega said. “Here we are developing [multiple] tools for one market.”
The plan is to make new food contamination detection techniques quickly available to the public—and for free, said Srega, who’s hoping to make Thermo Fisher “a thought leader for food safety.” When asked to explain the business model behind an industry-funded R&D center that will give away its intellectual property, Srega explained that he is counting on it to “build brand awareness” for the company.
The food safety lab was inspired by a similarly conceived project to develop proteomic tools for biomarkers, Srega said. In 2006, Thermo opened the Biomarker Research Initiatives in Mass Spectrometry Center in Cambridge, Mass., in collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital. Development of new biomarker methodologies helped the company establish credibility in the field (C&EN, Nov. 27, 2006, page 14).
Thermo representatives did not disclose the value of the food center’s funding, except to say that it would receive “much more” than $500,000 per year. A tour of the 600-sq-ft facility makes clear that the five staff members—Mittendorf; Hamide Senyuva, a food consultant; and three bench chemists—will have an ample selection of top-notch analytical equipment.
However, equipment required to detect emerging contaminants shouldn’t be too exotic, points out Jeffrey Moore, scientific liaison for U.S. Pharmacopeia’s “Food Chemicals Codex,” a compendium of standards for food ingredients that is not associated with the Thermo Fisher lab. In a food contamination crisis, he explained, it’s best to develop adulterant-detecting analytical methods with “commonly available equipment,” so the methodology can be easily employed by labs around the world.
A two-week turnaround for new analytic technology during a contamination crisis is achievable, if optimistic, Moore believes. “In the best-case scenario, when you know what the contamination is and when the food matrix is not relatively complex, then it’s possible to come up with an analytic technique in about two weeks,” he says.
Detecting contaminants in food can be an analytical headache for a variety of reasons, including the variability of the food’s chemical make-up, which stymies efforts to figure out the normal, baseline spectrum of molecules in food.
For example, finding methods to detect a contaminant in milk is a “medium challenge” compared with the task for “finished food products such as packaged chicken pot pies,” Moore says. Moreover, if the contaminant is chemically similar to food’s “normal” compendium of molecules, analytical scientists have a tough time coming up with reliable detection methods.
To assess when to tackle a food contamination crisis, the Thermo team plans to monitor media reports, notices from government regulators, and other sources of food contamination news. One requirement is that the contaminant’s chemical structure be known, Mittendorf said, although the team is also considering getting involved in identifying unknown contaminants.
Thermo has not yet made formal links with regulators or food safety associations. But Vincent Paez, the firm’s food safety business development director, says staffers have “been in touch” with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, and others.
When not dealing with food crises, the center’s staff will develop techniques to detect adulterants in food. Paez cites as examples the adulteration of honey with high-fructose corn syrup and aromas and the illegal use of Sudan red, an azo dye that the European Food Safety Authority calls “potentially genotoxic and possibly carcinogenic,” to make paprika a more vibrant crimson.