The EU is at the forefront of mycotoxin research and is the most strictly regulated region in the world, but there is still an urgent need to improve the efficiency and speed of screening to keep mycotoxins in check as they continue to mutate and evolve, said Professor Rudolf Krska from the University of Vienna.
Krska and his team have spent two years testing the viability of infrared spectroscopic analysis using the latest quantum cascade laser technology. They said the introduction of this technology could speed up the screening process and ensure earlier detection of prevalent EU mycotoxins, such as fusarium fungi and the deoxynivalenol toxin.
“Spectroscopic analysis, or fingerprinting, is commonly used to measure the protein, moisture and fat content of food, but it has never successfully been used to screen for mycotoxins, mainly because the laser technology lacked sensitivity and power. However, the novel quantum cascade laser uses high power infrared light and has proved to be very effective in our preliminary results,” Krska told Milling & Grains.
Grains are currently screened at chemical labs where the process is quite labour intensive and slow, he said, with batches are processed at a rate of one every one to two hours. In comparison, the spectroscopic fingerprinting device has the capability of screening one batch every ten minutes, he explained, and it could also be cheaper in the long-term.
Mycospec project: Developing on-site devices
The research has generated support from across Europe and the team has joined forces with three other EU research centers and five industrial SMEs in a two-year, EU funded project, called Mycospec.
The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a prototype laser sensing device for on-site testing. The team will perform a feasibility study and analyse the advantages and limitations of infrared spectroscopic technology.
“The project aims to develop a portable on-site screening device to detect mycotoxins in maize and wheat at the source during the milling process and to downsize the number of analysis at chemical labs,” said Krska.
“We are not interested in detecting the mycotoxin species at this stage, but simply identifying contaminated grains. The next stage of the project will look into the methodology of using the technology to perform a complete analysis to screen for toxin type as well.”
Cereal grown in the EU is at the mercy of around 300 different mycotoxins and new strains are emerging all the time. Indeed, climate change has created the perfect weather conditions for a worrying new breed of ‘masked’ mycotoxins immune to current screening methods.
If successful, Krska’s vision should reinforce defences against mycotoxins by integrating a cost-effective laser spectroscopic device into the milling process.