Advancing Food Safety Technology Into the 21st Century

Since the dawn of civilization, access to safe food and water has been vital for the survival and health of human and animal populations. And yet, producing and preserving food that is safe, healthy, and nutritious, while feeding the entire world population, has always been, and continues to be, a challenge for humanity.

In recent decades, the transformation of the food industry from a traditionally agriculture-based local activity into a highly sophisticated and technologically advanced commercial global industry has created many benefits for the global food supply. As production capacity and capabilities have significantly improved, we have been able to reduce potential food shortages, even in the face of a continuously growing world population.

In addition, centralized food processing and storage, along with improved modes of transportation, have eliminated the local, seasonal, and geographic constraints on food production and consumption and have markedly reduced the impact of elements of nature such as drought, floods, and pests on the food supply.

At the same time, as the food industry continues to modernize and globalize, it also faces a new set of challenges, many of which are much more complex than those of a traditional, agrarian, decentralized system. For instance, instead of pests and pathogens, which historically represented some of the main culprits in harming food production and preservation, we are now confronting chemical residues, harmful pesticides, and toxic additives that have the potential to harm the integrity of our food supply.

Furthermore, higher levels of environmental pollution in our soil, water, and air are increasing the presence of contaminants such as toxic metals, dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in food. Also, several substances designed to increase overall food production, such as insecticides, veterinary therapeutics, and hormones, are affecting the quality and content of food being produced, often with poorly understood long-term consequences.

In addition, when food is produced in countries with lower quality controls and regulatory standards, there is an increased risk of food adulteration with toxic additives such as Bisphenol A, acrylamide, melamine, and other harmful organic and inorganic substances.


The applications of modern science and biotechnology for food production and genetically modified foods and crops have presented novel opportunities and made enormous contributions in agriculture and food production. In genetically modified organisms (GMOs), their natural genetic material (DNA) is altered through genetic engineering and/or recombinant DNA technology by transferring selected genes from one organism to the other or even between nonrelated species, thus creating a new organism with a new genetic code. Since humans have not been around on earth that long, we don’t have sufficient knowledge of the consequences of this technology. Therefore, GMOs continue to be controversial and a cause of concern since we still have limited knowledge of their impact on human health for current and future generations and on natural ecosystems.

In the United States, there are numerous federal agencies that are responsible for food safety, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), and National Institutes of Health (NIH). The new Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on January 4, 2011, will result in significant improvements to the safety and security of food produced in the U.S., as well as food imported from overseas.

In a statement on January 3, 2011, Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., Commissioner of the FDA, said, “Each year, foodborne illness strikes 48 million Americans, hospitalizing a hundred thousand and killing thousands. . .. We will, in accordance with the law, establish science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables to minimize the risk of serious illnesses or deaths. . .. The legislation significantly enhances FDA’s ability to oversee the millions of food products coming into the United States from other countries. . .. This law represents a sea change for food safety in America, bringing a new focus on prevention.”

The FSMA is also increasing the overall focus on food safety. In an open letter in the March 4, 2011 issue of the journal, Science, groups representing over 40,000 scientists, researchers, and clinicians urge the U.S. EPA and FDA to increase oversight of the impact of toxic chemicals on humans by examining their more long-term and subtle impact on the human body rather than focusing on just near-term toxicity: “Currently, the EPA and FDA are charged with safeguarding the health of Americans. This is a daunting task that is hampered by the growing recognition that currently accepted testing paradigms and government review practices are inadequate for chemicals with hormone-like actions. The need for swifter and sounder testing and review procedures cannot be overstated.”

The letter urges a multidisciplinary approach utilizing expertise in areas such as genetics, developmental biology, endocrinology, and other disciplines. In addition to such approaches, recent advances in genomics, glycomics, and proteomics, as well as the use of highly sophisticated and sensitive technologies such as mass spectrometry (MS), are providing a new level of analytics in food testing.

Mass spectrometers, which can determine the mass and identity of a broad spectrum of biological and chemical substances with exquisite precision, have recently become a critical and irreplaceable tool in the biomolecular analysis field. Newer highly sensitive mass spectrometers can pinpoint, with great precision, the exact origin, source, and type of contaminant or toxin in the food supply.

Multiple modalities and systems are available for food safety analysis. LC-MS combines the physical separation abilities of liquid chromatography with the mass analysis capabilities of mass spectrometry. Leading LC-MS technologies for food safety include:

  • AB Sciex’s (Foster City, CA) QTRAP LC/MS/MS systems, which are designed for metabolite identification, detection, and confirmation of pesticides
  • Agilent’s (Palo Alto, CA) 6000 series, offering a broad array of systems that integrate all the LC and MS operating parameters in a single interface for streamlined data acquisition, review, and reporting
  • Water’s (Milford, MA) LC-MS systems (e.g., Xevo® G2 Tof, ACQUITY® SQD, and 3100 Mass Detector) cover a wide spectrum of analytical requirements and budgets, ranging from cost-effective MS detectors for chromatographers, through powerful, robust instruments for everyday LC-MS, up to high-performance benchtop instruments with exact mass capabilities
  • Thermo Fisher Scientific’s (Waltham, MA) Orbitrap LC-MS technology, which is one of the most recognized LC-MS systems.

Additionally, GC-MS technology (which combines gas chromatography and mass spectrometry) is widely used in food safety testing. Agilent’s 5975C system delivers enhanced MS resolution and the lowest mass deviation for measuring the nanoscale materials with superior sensitivity and spectral integrity. PerkinElmer’s (Shelton, CT) Clarus GC/MS family of instruments features high-sensitivity analysis, wide mass range, and fast scanning rates. Shimadzu’s (Columbia, MD) GCMS-2010 series is also a leading choice for food safety experts.

The ever-expanding globalization of our food supply, as well as threats of food contamination by chemicals, microbes, and acts of terrorism, have increased concerns for the safety and integrity of our food. At the same time, the recent advancements in technology, through increasingly more sophisticated analytical tools, have enabled us to be better equipped than ever to handle the complex challenges of food safety today, and in the future to ensure that we ultimately attain the goal of feeding the world’s population with safe and nutritious food.

Ms. Shukla is a Consulting Editor, American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail: