In recent months FoodProductionDaily.com has included several articles covering the intriguing development work of Swedish company Biacore in the area of Surface Plasmon Resonance (SPR) technology-based systems. Put plainly, the company is developing some of the most innovative means of ensuring that the chemical content of foods comes up to the increasingly strict food and safety standards being implemented in both the EU and around the world.
Most recently, the company announced the latest developments in its optical biosensor technology, unveiled at the European Research 2002 conference held in Belgium two weeks ago. The development features SPR biosensor technology which can be applied to detect potentially harmful contaminants and chemical residues in almost any type of food substance.
Biacore was established in 1984 and introduced its first product for the for researchers in the area of life science in 1990. In the past 10 years, however, the company has diversified and the increasing awareness of food safety issues has led to the company's growing involvement in that area. In the words of Biacore vice-president, Esa Stenberg: "The company aims to provide greater safety and testing accuracy for food content, and in doing this, to reduce the risk factor for food companies."
Stenberg discussed the company's diversification into the food industry: "Biacore's very first project was an open research platform for molecules - measuring the kinetics of molecules, to be exact. This research attracted individuals in the biotech industry in the 90s, and the company quickly realised there were more areas for its research. More specifically, we started to move into the consumer industries, and the food industry became one of the most important in this area.
"We then proceeded to collaborate with the Leatherhead Food Research Centre, in Surrey, UK. Our first food safety testing kit was launched in 1998 and from there we have developed a comprehensive range of food testing kits.
"Our collaboration with the FoodSENSE project, which has led to the most recent developments in our optical biosensor technology, began in 1998. The collaboration was born out of the need to speed up the process of safety testing for growth hormones and antibiotics."In Europe, the legislation for residues of antibiotics in agro-foods differs between countries. Growth promoters such as hormones are prohibited for use in the animal production, and this is part of the reason why food safety testing is such a complicated and painstaking business here. One element of the testing, which is particularly complicated, is the screening. The FoodSENSE project developed a testing kit that managed to ratify 600 samples a day.
"It has also been used to test for the antimicrobial chloramphenicol, which has been found in products containing shellfish and honey from some countries in Asia Pacific. EC regulators are getting tougher on chemicals such as this because they are being driven by a very strong consumer lobby here in Europe. All of this is pushing the standards for food quality higher and higher. However, in the United States the market is quite different because some of the contaminants prohibited in animal production in Europe are accepted for use in animal feed there."
When questioned about the challenges that Biacore has faced in trying to establish itself in the area of food safety, Stenberg stressed that it had been no easy ride.
"Setting up and developing the technology was immense. The challenge was to develop the means to make the testing of food safer, easier and quicker. The food industry has a much wider range of sampling out, when compared to the pharmaceutical industry for example. This makes adaption of the testing kits to different applications far more difficult.
"The food industry is a difficult one to break into, since it relies on a well established system of safety testing. But things are starting to change now. A number of large-scale food scares worldwide have meant massive losses to the industry. This is persuading many of the key players to change in order to lower the risks. What's more, this is also a part of our challenge for the future: to develop good relations with the key players in the industry in order to grow the business. We already have a strong working relationship with major players in the industry, which is something we will be looking to build on."
So why should food companies choose to invest more money in food safety testing? Just how does Biacore justify the additional expense required to purchase its safety testing kits?
"The advantages to the industry are numerous. However, primarily, the testing kits are there to reduce the risk assessment of food. Although capital investment for the testing might be high, we can justify it by reducing long-term costs tremendously and providing a far greater level of food safety. Our kits mean there is less of a need for in-house research and on top of that the results are available so much quicker, which all saves valuable time and resources.
"The take-up of this technology is steadily growing. We have more than 2,000 users in total worldwide where the US is the biggest market. Our business now covers the pharma & biotech industry, including all the top 20 pharma companies, together with the life science research and food industries.
"We expect the interest in the high throughput testing kits will spread rapidly in the EU because of the new, stricter food safety regulations. We will be focusing on niche market such as salmonella detection in poultry to begin with. But we expect that this will lead to a host of new applications for testing because salmonella is one contaminant the food industry is really eager to fight. There is no actual product yet, but this is a very interesting development that we expect will take off rapidly once its goes to the market.
"The possibilities of our technology are very broad based, almost unlimited. In many ways this is one of the major challenges: to focus on the applications for our testing, and to focus on the right ones. On top of that the timing issue is also a trick that has to be honed. It is crucial to get the product to the market just at the right time. We have to hit the market before the food scare hits."