New device will find carcinogenic food fungus faster

One of the food industry’s major recurring challenges, detecting highly carcinogenic toxins that occur naturally in our most common crops, could soon be solved by groundbreaking research that exploits aflatoxins’ fluorescent properties.

One of the food industry’s major recurring challenges, detecting highly carcinogenic toxins that occur naturally in our most common crops, could soon be solved by groundbreaking research that exploits aflatoxins’ fluorescent properties.

Aflatoxins are present in a wide range of foodstuffs, especially cereals, grains and nuts and are known to be highly carcinogenic.  As they are naturally occuring there is no way to eliminate them from the food chain. Instead,  suppliers and producers of food stuffs that are particularly vulnerable to aflatoxins focus on detecting them quickly.

Dr Stephen Euston at Heriot-Watt University is leading a project to test the feasibility of a new device, designed by Edinburgh Biosciences, that will detect aflatoxins much more quickly and accurately than current methods. The focus is on making the device easy to use, with simple and instant results that don’t require a chemistry degree to be able to understand them. This will remove the need for expensive lab technicians to spend days analysing samples, potentially hundreds of miles away.

Dr  Euston said: “Detecting aflatoxins quickly and at each stage of the global supply system is of crucial concern. They occur naturally in some crops, but they can find another way into the food chain through contaminated animal feedstock.

“At the moment, detection relies on a time-consuming method that involves extracting the toxin from the food and then transported to a lab for testing and identification. Few methods allow testing of the foodstuff to happen then and there, in the field or in the cargo dock. This leads to delays and costs, which are passed onto the consumer.

“Aflatoxins fluoresce strongly, which we’re using to our advantage. We’re using the latest Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) with a new generation of interference filters to develop a highly sensitive instrument that will detect the fluoresence and identify aflatoxins rapidly.

“The EU has the most stringent requirements of any regulatory body when it comes to the level of aflatoxins permitted in foodstuffs. Anything above four micrograms per kilogram, which is  equivalent to four billionths of a kilogram, is not permitted. Our device will detect aflatoxins at an even lower level.

“This device will have huge benefits to farmers, tranportation agents, port inspectors, buyers , importers, exporters and producers of foodstuffs for human and animal consumption.

“Ultimately, though,  the consumer will benefit . Food will be safer and as production costs go down, so too should retail costs.”

As well as developing a prototype instrument that will be low cost and easy to use, Dr Euston and his team are working to establish test procedures that will allow the instrument to be used to test bulk material in situ, whether nuts, corn or cereals.

The research partnership between Dr Stephen Euston at Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh Biosciences, a spinout company based at the university’s Edinburgh campus, received funding from the Technology Strategy Board. The team expects to have a prototype instrument by June 2014.


About aflatoxins

From the European Food Safety Authority

  • Aflatoxins are mycotoxins produced by two species of Aspergillus, a fungus which is especially found in areas with hot and humid climates.
  • Aflatoxins can occur in foods such as groundnuts, treenuts, maize, rice, figs and other dried foods, spices and crude vegetable oils, and cocoa beans, as a result of fungal contamination before and after harvest.
  • Aflatoxin B1 is the most common in food and among the most potent genotoxic and carcinogenic aflatoxins. It is produced both by Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.
  • Aflatoxin M1 is a major metabolite of aflatoxin B1 in humans and animals, which may be present in milk from animals fed with aflatoxin B1 contaminated feed.

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From the American Society of Microbiology

  • A 2004 outbreak of aflatoxocis in Kenya, casued by the ingestion of contaminted maize, resulted in the death of 125 people.

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From the Centre for Disease Control (USA Government)

  • In developing nations, many people are exposed to aflatoxin through food grown at home. Inadequate harvesting and storage techniques allow for the growth of aflatoxin-producing fungus and homegrown crops are not routinely tested for the presence of aflatoxin. As a result, an estimated 4.5 billion people living in developing countries may be chronically exposed to aflatoxin through their diet.

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About Dr Stephen Euston

Stephen Euston is an Associate Professor in food science in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. He has extensive industrial experience in the food industry gained as an analytical chemist with Yorkshire Water LabServices, and as a dairy chemist with the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute.

His current research is focused on understanding and improving the functional properties of food proteins; isolation of proteins from waste/co-product sources; fat replacement in foods; and novel sources of food proteins.  A particular feature of his work is the close relationship between his research group and industry with several project funded as KTP and collaborative grants by the Technology Strategy Board.

About Heriot-Watt University

Heriot-Watt University specialises in science, technology, engineering, business and design, with a particular focus on developing solutions to critical global issues, such as climate change and energy.

In the Sunday Times 2013 University Guide

  • Number 4 in Scotland
  • Top in Scotland for Chemical Engineering, Building and Civil Engineering
  • In the UK Top 10 for Mathematics, Chemical Engineering, Building, Town & Country Planning and Landscape, and Food Science

In the National Student Survey 2013

  • No 2 in Scotland and No 11 in UK (based on responses to all questions from FT degree students)
  • In the Top 10 for graduate employment in the UK (over 94% of graduates are in employment or further study within six months of graduation)

Established in 1821, the university has campuses in Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders, Orkney and Dubai, and is investing in a new campus in Malaysia.

About Edinburgh Biosciences

Edinburgh Biosciences Ltd (EBS) seeks to exploit advances in optical science and technology in the area of bioscience applications. EBS is a spin out from Edinburgh Instruments, the UK’s first university spin out business.

Its founders have an outstanding record of academic and innovative achievement coupled with experience of developing new businesses.

EBS is currently developing a new generation of spectrometers based on a combination of narrow wavelength sources with novel dynamic wavelength selectors. Target markets involve the detection of contamination in surgical instruments and diagnosis of cataracts. We are also investigating new techniques of interest to the food industry.

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