Seeding New Ground in Food Safety Testing
The essential task of transporting bulk foodstuffs around the world is obviously a huge and expensive one, made even more challenging by the need to ensure they are being kept fit for human consumption, at every stage of delivery from producer to consumer.
There are a number of food safety testing and monitoring techniques already in use to meet the stringent standards set by multiple food agencies worldwide. However, many of these involve some compromises, so it is a significant event in food safety when a brand new technology is created to deliver a fundamental improvement to the way the whole industry can function—delivering completely new levels of speed, cost-effectiveness and repeatability to food safety testing.
This brief study looks at how a forward-thinking food safety technology start-up took a radically new idea and is delivering disruptive technology, set to shake up the whole industry. Having created the concept for a low-cost and rugged system capable of reducing test and result times from days or hours down to just minutes, it then partnered with a respected design, prototyping and manufacturing house to deliver this capability in a rugged and reliable piece of test equipment, suitable for large and small testing sites alike.
Food safety is one of the main pillars of quality for food producers and the logistic and cost implications of foodstuffs that have, for example, gone mouldy while waiting at the dockside to be shipped, can be truly enormous. Ultimately, it leads to the wastage of valuable human resources, increased cost pressure on the supply chain and increased cost to the consumer.
Mycotoxins are toxic chemical products produced by fungi that readily colonize crops. They are also carcinogenic, grow quickly in damp conditions and can be fatal in high doses, so are subject to strict regulations. Approximately 56 percent of rejections at the EU border are due to mycotoxins, which is 10-times higher than any other hazard category, so this is the ‘number one’ issue in the safe transport of bulk raw commodities (Figure 1. Mycotoxins Are the Leading Cause of Food Safety Border Rejections).
Indeed the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 25 percent of world crops are affected, leading to 5–10 percent of commodities being discarded; there is consequently huge pressure to solve this issue. In addition, the mycotoxin testing market is growing due to increased commodity exports and regulatory demands. As a result, the market is estimated to be worth close to $1Billion per year across the four major agricultural commodity groups—nuts, cereals, dried fruits and coffee beans.
However, testing for mycotoxins must be done at each handover point (Figure 2. Testing Must Be Done at Each Handover), and with the current technologies available [e.g., enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), fluorescence polarization immunoassay, high-performance or high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry], this is arguably exposed to an unavoidable compromise between being either ‘inaccurate’ or ‘too expensive.’
What is needed is the introduction of a simple, low cost, rugged and reliable system that can accurately and quickly measure mycotoxin levels at every step in the supply chain for an on-the-spot decision. The benefits of this are significant, de-risking the entire process and inherently improving the quality of foods by cutting out days of storage time (and the increased mycotoxin risk) with immediate results becoming available at the dockside and warehouse door.
Solving the Problem
Ray Coker, Emeritus Professor of Food Safety at the University of Greenwich, has 30 years of experience in the international management of food and feed safety, and is a world-leading expert in the field of mycotoxins. During his time overseas as a member of the National Resources Institute, he became aware of the need, and the gap in the market, for a simple but accurate method for measuring mycotoxins, that could be used every day by people, in large and small companies alike, who were not trained scientists.
With this in mind, Professor Coker secured a grant and left the University to form a spin-out organization; the Kent-based company ToxiMet Ltd where he is the chief technology officer, and the concept for the company’s first product ToxiQuantTM was born.
Professor Coker, spoke warmly of the early days of ToxiMet’s existence, “Our first prototype was jointly developed with a small optical partner and we proved the concepts for ToxiQuant, admirably well. However, it was clear that to be effective, the production unit would need to be robust, delivering accurate and repeatable results in the field and in dirty ‘noisy’ industrial locations - harbours, factories, etc., not just in the lab environment.
Knowing that they needed greater production engineering skills than were available in house, ToxiMet set about securing a development and manufacturing partner to deliver this phase of the program and engaged in discussions with a UK-based instrumentation design consultancy and manufacturer, Integrated Technologies Limited (ITL) in Ashford, Kent.
‘Bringing Instruments to Life’ is ITL’s slogan because that’s exactly what it does. It has been doing so with great success for 35 years and its strength lies in its ability to support customers throughout every stage of the concept, design, development, prototyping and manufacturing cycle. Being a relatively small company has distinct advantages when it comes to being dynamic and flexible and it was ITL’s skills in this area that caught Coker’s attention and his opening comment when asked for his first impressions was, “We were really very impressed with ITL. As it turned out, our eyes were opened by them, to entirely new levels of design for manufacture, qualification and production. The ITL team became a fundamental part of everything we did and the depth of knowledge and resources was key to our progress”.
The ToxiQuant unit they have now produced, delivers all the key objectives identified for the system and will provide highly repeatable results so all parties can be confident they are accepting/rejecting consignments to the same standards as each other.
ToxiQuant is a disruptive product (Figure 3. ToxiQuant Is a Disruptive System, Combining the Best Properties of Current Testing Solutions), combining the best properties of the currently available testing solutions (i.e. lateral flow device, ELISA and HPLC). It provides a highly precise quantification similar to HPLC, but in a fraction of the time. Reading and analysis time is just 10 minutes versus 30 minutes to 48 hours for other methods. As the equipment is low cost and repeatable, it can be placed affordably at every point in the journey so that everyone in the supply chain can agree on the pass/fail conditions and results.
Coker adds, “Although I can't go into too much detail, the ToxiQuant system comprises three main elements. The first is the ToxiSepTM cartridge that cleans up the sample extracted from the raw commodity. The cleaned-up sample is then loaded into a ToxiTraceTM cartridge, which is then inserted for measurement into the ToxiQuant device. The ToxiQuant instrument is composed of highly sophisticated patent protected spectroscopic analysis hardware and proprietary chemometrics algorithms that quantify the toxins. This unique combination delivers outstanding accuracy and linear response across the whole regulatory concentration range.”
Dr. Siro Perez, CEO of ToxiMet, has a background in the research and development, and the Venture Capital investment community, so his commitment to joining the ToxiMet management team is a first-hand indication of the huge potential for Professor Coker’s invention.
He comments, “This new ability to provide real-time, regular testing of the food quality, every time it is to be transported, brings potentially huge commercial and operational benefits to the whole supply chain. For example, importers of commodities currently need to wait up to a week to receive the results of mycotoxin testing. This blocks their warehouse, costing them a lot of money in storage, and, moreover, by the time the results are received, it might be that the shipment has become contaminated due to storage at the port-side in humid conditions. Some importers decide to ship to customers before the tests are received, taking ownership of the consignment and thus suffering large losses, should the shipment be found to be contaminated. With a 10-minute test available, all these issues immediately disappear; shipping or rejecting 100 percent of the consignment and de-risking its ownership, by selling-on or rejecting as quickly as possible. The equipment will be fully supported in the field and we will supply all required items such as testing consumables and laboratory ancillaries”
Professor Coker refers again to ITL, “We have been with ITL for 2 years now and in that time the team has transformed our hardware from a clunky device to something a hundred times better. ITL has the breadth of expertise to clearly understand and combine all aspects of the software, firmware, electrical and mechanical engineering that we need.
“It has delivered the production engineering for both the main unit and the sample cartridge and came up with a whole new device to solve an alignment challenge that was a really big issue for ToxiMet.
“ITL drives our weekly progress meetings with first-class project management, is always fast to tackle issues and always delivers on what it commits to do. It has even provided solutions for issues that were caused by our other suppliers and has done so with enthusiasm.
“It is great to have access to ITL’s top management and you get the impression that the whole team, from the CEO down, loves a challenge. As a result it has been exceptional for us; in fact I would go as far as to say they have been the main force in helping us get to market on time.”
Dr. Perez adds, “It is difficult to find anyone else who can provide the same level of specialist technical knowledge and manufacturing capability. We really notice the positive attitude of management and motivation of the engineers—a powerful combination.
“Also there is great expectation from our investors and we are not shy to share this pressure with the ITL team. The response is outstanding and they have repeatedly shown they are fully prepared to adjust their resources to support us through all the critical moments.
Something like 80 percent of start-ups fail—often due to poor partners, and for a start-up, this level of support can be the difference between life and death, success and failure. The truly excellent partnership we have with ITL has undoubtedly been a main contributor to what is rapidly becoming a major success story for the ToxiMet team.”
The Future for ToxiMet and ITL
So what comes next for the partnership? Dr. Perez closes by saying, “Having now worked with a wide range of ITL personnel, we are extremely happy with everyone. We work very effectively as a single team to deliver ToxiQuant and the ability to engage in highly productive conversations at any time, night or day, has been key to our success. We fully expect to continue working with the ITL team as business grows in the future.
ITL supported ToxiMet at the ToxiQuant’s global launch event in Singapore in May 2012 and will attend Analytica China in Shanghai with them in October.
From a future product perspective, the ToxiQuant instrument will enable a whole range of food testing solutions; beyond that, it provides a technology platform that can be expanded to other applications, for example MRSA testing, where again times could be dramatically reduced from 24–48 hrs down to 10 minutes.
With wholly owned qualified manufacturing facilities opened in China in 2010, ITL is well placed to support ToxiMet’s internal transition to identical processes and systems for high volume manufacturing and distribution on a worldwide basis, when the appropriate scale is reached next year.
Learn more at www.toximet.com.