NANTES - The E. coli crisis that killed 52 people in Germany last spring has now been followed by a deadly outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe in the United States that has killed 13 people so far. The risks of tainted food and the ability to rapidly and accurately identify the source of contamination is a hot topic indeed.
So just in time comes the inauguration of Eurofins' new site, the worlds largest independent laboratory specializing in microbial testing of foods. Located in the western French city of Nantes, the new lab specializes in the analysis of bacteria found in foods, including listeria, salmonella, E. coli, and staphylococci. The new lab unit will culture more than 10,000 petri dishes with microbes daily, offering its clients a choice of three different types of methods with a price ranging from 20 to 200 euros.
The challenge of locating the exact origin of contaminated food was highlighted during the E.coli crisis that broke out in northern Germany in May. German health authorities initially erroneously blamed the outbreak on Spanish cucumbers, eventually tracing it back to bean sprouts that had found their way into the European market from Egypt.
With growing global trade, the risk of food contamination with emerging microbiological pathogens increases, threatening not only public health, but also the food industrys bottom line.
In Europe, the industry is held responsible for their commercial products, which is why they look to private labs to perform analyses to ensure that their products adhere to the high standards of the food industrys regulatory guidelines. The food industry has been routinely self-regulating itself, mainly as a matter of prevention.
Only in the event of a major food crisis do the public agencies directly intervene, says Jean-Yves Denis, director of the microbiology at Eurofins.
Communicating to the public the results of their analyses is not their business. As a lab, we do the measurements, but do not report on the outcome, says Fayçal Bellatif, the companys marketing director. We are beholden to protect industry secrets. In the end it is up to the food companies to disclose the results of our analyses.
The worldwide market of food safety analysis is estimated at 1.5 billion euros. Eurofins, the private company that will offer this service, is a global leader in the food analysis sector and one of the largest of its kind in northern Europe. They have developed their own extensive network of collection hubs throughout France to enable quick delivery of samples, which is critical to this type of time-sensitive research. Besides France, Eurofins also has labs based in 28 other countries.
Conducting analyses of microbes represents only about a third of all analyses performed by the lab. It is also specialized in identifying genetically modified crops, analyzing chemical contamination like pesticides, allergens, heavy metals, acrylamide and melamine, which have been found in tainted milk products from China.
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