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Nov. 19, 2009 Volume 31, No. 13

MU researchers aim to reduce Chinese food imports safety concerns

Bilateral bioscience

Stopping imported food contamination at its source

China’s increase in global food and related product exports has been as troubled as it has been dramatic. While the country’s shipments have leaped over the past decade, contaminants in those goods have killed thousands of pets and sickened consumers worldwide.

A team of MU food scientists has been awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to help MU students learn how to better detect and deal with contamination issues in the global food chain. The grant will also build a partnership with a leading Chinese university to disseminate food safety knowledge and analytical techniques in China and help alleviate problems at their source.

Mengshi Lin, assistant professor of food science, is leading the effort, and he is partnering with Jiangnan University in China. Lin teaches advanced food technology at MU, and his research aims to establish new techniques and methods to speed food testing.

Currently, he is developing nanomaterial-based sensors that can be used to rapidly detect extremely small amounts of contaminants in foods. He hopes to see this technology quickly and easily screen food products while they are still at the port of entry.

Lin will work with Azlin Mustapha, a food microbiologist, and Ingolf Gruen, a food analytical chemist, both MU associate professors of food science.

In partnership with Jiangnan University, the Mizzou team will conduct two summer trips to visit Chinese food producers to get a first-hand look at the current practices there. With this information, they plan to develop a curriculum that will teach students to improve the quality of food exports.

“We want to produce well-rounded graduate students in both countries who will be trained with a global perspective, understand emerging food safety issues and be able to collaborate with one another,” Lin says. “We also want to develop a model that can be used by other disciplines.”

Jiangnan University, located in Jiangsu province on China’s east coast, is one of the country’s largest technical universities and has close ties to Chinese industry. Its National Key Lab of Food Science and Technology is the only one of its kind in China.

Internationally, the value of Chinese food exports has expanded by a factor of nearly six over the past two decades, from $4.5 billion in 1986 to $25.7 billion in 2006. Governments around the world are demanding better quality control in these exports.

China has emerged in recent years as an important source of food imports into the United States, Lin said. Food imports from China more than tripled in value between 2001 and 2008.

In 2008, Chinese imports reached $5.2 billion, making China the third-largest source of U.S. food imports. About 41 percent of this import value was from fish and seafood, most of it farm raised. Juices and pickled, dried and canned vegetables, and fruit accounted for the other 25 percent.

According to the USDA, about 60 percent of all American apple juice, 50 percent of garlic, 10 percent of shrimp and 2 percent of catfish are imported from China. A July 2009 report by the Economic Research Service of the USDA said it is often difficult to ensure that suppliers in far-flung locations operate according to the high U.S. safety standards and tight quality control.

Often, a misunderstanding of American food safety laws leads to problems, Lin said, something that he hopes his program can address.

“We want to determine if contamination problems are being caused intentionally to cut costs, if producers are not aware of basic food safety techniques or relations, or if they are not aware of the latest techniques and technology to ensure food safety,” Lin says.

FDA refusals of food shipments from China peaked in early 2007, just before a series of highly publicized incidents. In 2007, FDA issued import alerts for wheat gluten, rice protein products and five kinds of farm-raised fish and shrimp from China.

The Chinese government has announced a number of safety-related measures, such as facility upgrades, careful record-keeping, closer control over suppliers, testing, certifications and audits.