Food not safe, no food business!

It is a fundamental point that we as consumers be able to trust that the food we eat will not harm us or threaten our health. In order to ensure the safety of food products, it is therefore necessary that our monitoring and testing of food raw materials and production to be active and abreast of the rapid development and innovation going on in the food industry,” says Helga Gunnlaugsdóttir, Research Group Leader of Microbial and Chemical Analysis and Risk Assessment at Matís.

Various things can affect the wholesomeness of food products. In addition to disease-causing microbes that people can ingest with food, food products can also contain substances that can affect our health over the long run. For example, these include persistent organic pollutants like dioxin and PCB. These substances are fat-soluble. People can ingest them in their food, and they can slowly but surely threaten our health. Long-term research into the effect of harmful and polluting substances in food is of enormous importance to our public health and well-being. We need sufficient equipment and specialised knowledge to enable us to meet consumers’ and government units’ increased demands for food safety. 

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    “Food legislation in Iceland is mostly the same as elsewhere in Europe. Proving that food product and environmental testing are competitive and comparable requires dynamic collaboration of the agencies and units involved in this issue category. Examples of this include laboratories, food producers, universities and governments,” says Helga.

    People at Matís work energetically to promote improved food safety in Iceland. The company’s diverse operations involve food safety and the wholesomeness of products. A big part of operations is microbial and chemical measurements. Matís annually performs these measurements on thousands of samples from various parties in the food industry and governmental monitors. This involves microbial and chemical analysis of samples of food products, drinking water and seawater. In addition to processing samples from food producers, Matís also sees to monitoring and safety services for the government. The part of the operations involving safety and monitoring for undesirable substances in food products consists, for example, of measuring traces of herbicides and pesticides in food products and persistent organic substances like PCB. Measurements of herbicides and pesticides are based on scans for various aids used in the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, like insecticides, herbicides and traces of pharmaceuticals.

    “We have certified measurements for governmental monitoring agencies in Iceland. This means that our measurements have attained a certain quality assurance status. The government and other monitoring agencies can turn to us for measurements since we must follow certain quality standards. In addition, Matís has been designated as Iceland’s reference laboratory for microbial testing of shellfish and for measurements of salmonella in food products. We have proven that our measurements in this research area accord with European standards. We are responsible for having recognised procedures at hand, and we can instruct other laboratories on such measurements,” says Helga.

    Bilateral project between Germany and Iceland

    “Our goal is to be a leader in food product and environmental research. The results of our research have yielded important information on consumer products and the environment here in Iceland. Not only Icelanders but also people in other countries will utilise it,” says Helga. This project, concluded in 2014, involved enabling competent Icelandic governmental units, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority and municipal health authorities to enforce regulations on food safety and consumer protection that Icelanders have already legalised through the EEA Agreement.

    A bilateral project between Germany and Iceland that came to an end in 2014 has contributed to the strengthening of food safety in Iceland. This bilateral project has been carried out in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection & Food Safety (LAVES) from the German side and the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), Matís and the Ministry of Industries and Innovations
    from the Icelandic side.

    The main priorities of the bilateral project were to improve and implement the analysis of pesticide residues, food contaminants such as PCBs as well as the detection of genetically modified food and feed. Another important aspect was the establishment of modern analytical methods for detecting marine biotoxins in shellfish. To achieve this goal, new state of the art laboratory equipment for chemical analysis was set up at Matís and the relevant staff has been trained on site to carry out official analytical methods according to EU standards. A number of experts from the German partner institutions supported this comprehensive training.

    Food businesses that participate in the global food trade must ensure that their food products are safe and competent authoritiesmust implement food safety measures according to international standards in order to ensure consumer protection.

    Another focus was to develop methods of food monitoring in collaboration with the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority. These included support from German experts regarding risk assessment and risk management in official controls, for both the central monitoring authorities (MAST) and the ten independent local authorities, responsible for controls at the retail level. The program also included internships and training professionals from the Icelandic surveillance authorities in Germany. This part of the project was under the responsibility of the Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety and was carried out by pursuing a practical approach, in which the Icelandic visiting scientist were working on location in the field in Germany.

    “The Safe Food project paved the way that Matís was appointed National Reference Laboratory for Iceland in 14 different measurement areas, which also enables Matís to participate in the European network of national laboratories. Furthermore, it has built the base for a long standing collaboration and understanding between the German and Icelandic participants.”  says Helga Gunnlaugsdóttir, Research Group Leader.