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More demand for residue-free products
Thirty years ago, a scandal in the wine sector led to the founding of laboratory group Eurofins. Nowadays, Eurofins consists of a network of specialised labs all over the world, each having its own specialisation. For the analysis of fruit and vegetables, among other things, we have to go to quiet Zeeland Flanders, Graauw to be precise. Arjen Kuneman (National Division Leader and Managing Director Graauw) and Daphne van Damme (Business Unit Manager Pesticides) look back at the past decades, but mostly forward to the future of lab research.
The first analysis offered thirty years ago was an inspection of wine. Is the wine pure, or diluted? In those years, there was a scandal in the wine sector in which the beverage was diluted. From that one test, Eurofins grew into a network with representatives in 39 countries and 28,000 employees worldwide. In the Netherlands, about 1,700 employees are busy making analyses in the food and animal feed sectors.
“Each laboratory actually works as a smaller company within the company. Because of that, responsibility is low in the company’s supply chain,” Arjen explains. Entrepreneurship is important. “Each lab is responsible for its own sales, analysis development, prices and customers. Because of that, each lab retained its own identity.”
“Here in Graauw, we have one of the largest food labs in the Netherlands,” Arjen (picture left) says. “But it’s our strength to be able to offer all analyses to customers by cooperating with Eurofins’ other labs.” The size of Eurofins results in an internal database of 130,000 different analyses that can be done in the laboratories. That’s convenient for the customers, according to Arjen, because they only have to go to one office window, and they quickly get their answers.
A specialised logistical network connects the labs. “Most samples arrive at the end of the day. Couriers drive between the labs to exchange the samples at night.” For that, the distances between Nantes, France, and Denmark are bridged with stops in, among other places, Heerenveen and Hamburg. For many researches, that transportation time isn’t a problem, because the research itself can take up several hours or even days.
The location in Graauw also does pre-harvest research to decide the best time for harvesting, or the ripeness of a product. “We also assist customers by contaminating a product on purpose to see how quickly bacteria develop. That helps us determine the product’s shelf life, for example.”
Retailers on edge
However, pesticide research, which is the speciality of the lab in Graauw, has a higher throughput rate. Results have to be presented yesterday, preferably. “Because of scandals in the food sector, retailers have become on edge when it comes to inspections,” Daphne explains. “We see demand for residue-free products increasing especially. Additionally, the analysis techniques are changing, so that we can prove more residues of pesticides with the same package.” The lab in Graauw is good for about 60 per cent of all analyses done on fruit and vegetables in the Netherlands. As an independent laboratory, Eurofins works for all links in the supply chain: from growers via traders to retailers.
Producers of pesticides haven’t been standing still. To guarantee execution of all analyses, Eurofins follows these developments closely. “Some of those companies are our customers as well,” Daphne says. These companies have trial fields, and send the samples to the labs to research the results. That way, Eurofins is expanding its knowledge of these new means.
The Netherlands and Belgium: “Clean cultivation”
Results of the analyses are compared to various standards and legislation before a conclusion is drawn. MRL (Maximum Residue Level) is one of those, but ARfD values (Acute Reference Dose) are also often asked for. Research into the toxicity of pesticides can result in lowering the ARfD value, so that the MRL value is adjusted. It can occur that by lowering the ARfD value, no MRL exceeding is ascertained, but that the ARfD value is exceeded. However, many supermarkets choose to be safe, enforcing stricter requirements than are required by law.
“The Dutch and Belgian growers are working very cleanly,” Daphne emphasises. Especially when comparing the results to products from other countries. In general, about five per cent of the products researched by the lab exceeds MRLs. Bell pepper and grapes are risky products, just as strawberries and other soft fruit. More pesticides are used especially when weather conditions aren’t favourable. And the increase of the convenience segment has added another risky group. The processed products are inspected on microbiological aspects, such as the presence of bacteriological contaminants like E.coli and Salmonella. “That’s a growing segment,” Arjen says.
Because of the inspections and because consumers and retailers are becoming more aware, hardly any major exceeding is ever found. Looking at statistics, residue inspections have been conducted since 1998, and since that time, the use of pesticides has decreased. Only when legislation changes and growers don’t have enough time to adjust, can serious overruns be measured. Compared to other sectors, the fresh produce sector is a ‘clean business.’
Daphne van Damme.
No labs in future?
Looking towards the future, Daphne and Arjen are certain the world of laboratory research will change considerably. “I’m not ruling out that analyses will be done using nearby infrared lights (NIR) in 25 years,” Arjen says. “We’re already using infrared in the lab.” That will change but not threaten the role played by the lab. “You have to go along with that kind of innovation, and we’re coming up with what the customer needs. The lab’s right to exist isn’t going to be touched. But I can imagine we’ll have smaller labs.”
Microbiological research is one example in which this is already playing a part. To find, for example, Salmonella on a product, time-consuming research has to be conducted, in which the bacteria had to grow. If DNA analysis can show the bacteria, the throughput time can be reduced. Besides, Eurofins is also working on building expertise in precision agriculture, for which a combination of satellite images and soil samples are used to guide the grower in, for example, fertilising.
Arjen Kuneman & Daphne van Damme
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