Biotechnology for accurate testing and new detection systemsPublished: 01-02-2016
Fresh produce can contain traces of pesticides, herbicides and pathogens. Groen Agro Control’s innovative analytical methods can detect even the smallest amounts. The company also uses its microbiological knowledge to develop crop protection products and pure cultures of algae and yeasts.
Groen Agro Control processes some 2,000 samples per week. This has to be done efficiently and fast, because fresh produce rapidly spoils. The lab analyzes samples for the presence of unwanted chemicals and bacteria, molds and viruses. Apart from these food safety parameters, Groen Agro Control can also test products for their nutritional content such as carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins.
Groen Agro Control has customers all over the globe, and its main service is analyses. Approximately 80 percent of the samples it processes are horticultural samples, sent to the lab by growers or traders. Processed foods, fish and meat make up the remaining 20 percent of samples.
Highly accurate test methods
“Our test for pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables is very sensitive and comprehensive,” says Michel Witmer, product manager at Groen Agro Control. “We can detect tiny trace amounts of 650 different compounds. There are just a handful of labs that come close to this level of accuracy. Other foreign laboratories usually test for 100 to 150 compounds. So it’s likely that some compounds are overlooked.” Groen Agro Control’s laboratories are outfitted with gas chromatography (GC) and liquid chromatography (LC) equipment coupled to state of the art mass spectrometers. These provide information that often far exceeds compliance with food safety laws or supermarket requirements.
“At our customers’ request, we collect samples from growers, manufacturers, or, in case of imported goods, ports,” says Witmer. “The lines of communication are short. As soon as the samples are in, they get processed and analyzed. If the results deviate from the requirements, we conduct a second and sometimes even a third test with different equipment.” The test results are sent to the customer as a PDF or made available online on the password-protected ‘Residuweb’ site.
Groen Agro Control lab not only houses chemical analysis equipment, but also innovative equipment for the detection of harmful microorganisms, Witmer explains. “We use PCR equipment for the detection of plant pathogens as well as human pathogens. PCR stands for ‘Polymerase Chain Reaction’. This method requires treatment of a small amount of the sample to ensure that the DNA specific to a particular microorganism multiplies. Next, the sample is screened for the presence of that microorganism’s DNA. This method is very fast and sensitive. It takes only 24 hours to determine whether the DNA, and hence the pathogen, is present,” explains Witmer.
Groen Agro Control has developed its own DNA primers and probes so it can use PCR technology to detect fungi and bacteria in horticulture. These primers and probes are small pieces of specific DNA used either to start a reaction or as a control. For the detection of pathogens like Salmonella, STEC and Listeria, the lab uses commercially available probes.
Groen Agro Control is not just about testing, Witmer stresses. “We also do consultancy. If the test results give cause for concern, we can critically assess the production process for our customer. The results of such an audit can then be used to draw up a plan for improvement and we can even provide advice on how best to implement that plan.”
Groen Agro Control continues to diversify. Apart from laboratory analyses and consultancy, the company is also actively involved in developing new technologies. One effort is aimed at developing microbiological crop protection products. To this end, they have built a modern greenhouse outfitted with LED lighting, on top of their laboratory.
A few years ago, Groen Agro Control began using biotechnology as well. The result is a ‘library’ containing large numbers of pure brewers’ yeasts and algae cultures, which are available to beer breweries and algae growers. Witmer is proud of the expertise his company has built up over the years. “We’ve got a lot of in-house knowledge about microbiology. And we can apply that to a broad field. That’s where we’re expecting growth in the years to come. We’re involved in several horticultural projects through our customers and partners. One of them is about developing a stand-alone food production system for use during long space flights. Others include the development of plant vaccines, applications of antagonists, and growing algae to produce health-promoting substances and medications. We’re right on top of the latest trends. People with creative ideas on biotechnology are always welcome to join our team.”