Insects and lab-grown meat prove testing times for food quality services

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/
©iStock/
The rise of ‘new’ raw materials such as insects and lab-grown meat has placed further demands on food safety testing services already wrestling with improving current analytical methods to offer faster turnaround times.

These services have to balance food industry freedom to innovate and experiment with consumer and regulatory agency expectations to maintain a safe food product.

But with the rise of plant-based meats, GM ingredient use and even edible packaging is the pace of innovation overtaking the development of techniques designed to detect contaminants and impurities in these complex food matrices?

“I think the innovation is there,” ​said Dr Jan Knight, managing director of contract testing firm Knight Scientific. “There are also the handheld devices that are getting much more user friendly.”

“People that are using this for one field should be looking at applying this to this emerging market. The technology is there, they probably haven’t realised that there is a market there.”

“Traceability equals reproducibility. You may get an exciting product but can you repeat it? Standards right from the beginning when doing anything and this is really what it’s all about.”  

With lab meat in particular, emerging testing technologies such as in-line viable kits that recognise specific strains of cell lines could well play a more prominent role to make it easier to verify new organisms and track the product through the food supply chain.

Likewise Dr Knight has developed a range of ABEL test kits that can be used to measure the antioxidant potency of different antioxidants in food when challenged by a range of different free radicals and other oxidants.

Adapting toxicity testing

The novelty of these raw materials gives rise to an alternative approach that aligns them with other foods already recognised as safe – a course of action that Dr Knight thinks may involve a collaborative effort.

“You’ll find that different labs test for the same thing in different ways. There are an awful lot of toxicity testing in environmental monitoring that could be adapted,” ​she said.

“Likewise, you would have to be looking at the processes involved in the preparation of this material. For example, in the preparation of insects they will need to undergo freeze drying or grinding or making into extracts, there may be some properties on the skin that need to be looked at.”

“So I think you need to keep thinking of where these contaminants could come in and how to deal with them.​”

“In developing insects, you’ll want to decide when you’ll be harvesting them. You would also need to ensure that they are also fit and healthy to start off with. Make sure you’ve got the organism in the fittest condition possible, for when you start your next process.

The growth of lab grown meat has placed a spotlight on how the EU will regulate this emerging field of agriculture.  From a lab-testing perspective, questions have been posed as to what safeguards are appropriate to best ensure or verify the safety of this raw material.

“With any sort of culture containing living cells, you must ensure that you haven’t got any mutations,” ​said Dr Knight. “You want to be able to monitor the cell line as they will change over subsequent generations.”

“There are also biocompatibility issues,”​ she added. “You would need to ensure that the materials you have selected to grow this culture in is appropriate and does not interfere with the growing culture.”

Future EU considerations

On future EU regulation Dr Knight, a scientist involved in developing research methods into inflammatory diseases, biocompatibility of medical devices and antioxidants and diet, hoped the regulatory authorities would keep an open mind.

“Like the medical device sector, it’s the best test available at that time, which means that if something better comes along, you can substitute it,” ​she said. “In drug testing, we’re stuck with mandatory animal testing.”

“Let’s hope in this new emerging field that the tests evolve to help you get these products on the market and that the regulations allow these new tests to be introduced and improve on whatever you’re looking to attain.”

“Regulators need to be informed that the innovations that need to be controlled will best be done if innovations are permitted in the testing phase, like they do with the medical device directives.

“Here, you say this is an actual group of tests, which you can select from. If a new test comes, obviously it will have to go through a lot of processes to prove that it is better.”

“What we want though is to avoid inferior tests that are available now when you’ve got innovative food materials, so let’s hope that they evolve at the same time.”

Related topics: R&D, Regulation and safety, Lab Technology