Wednesday, June 2, 1999 Published at 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
'Faster, cheaper' dioxin tests needed
Belgian eggs and chicken have been pulled from shop shelves
A leading Belgian food scientist says the current crisis over contamination of chickens would have been less severe if better tests for dioxins were available.
Professor Guy Maghuin-Rogister, in the Department of Food Sciences at the University of Liege proposed research last year that would greatly reduce the cost and time required for testing.
This has now been funded by the Belgian Department of Agriculture and, on Wednesday, the Belgian Department of Health telephoned Professor Guy Maghuin-Rogister about his research for new dioxin tests.
He told BBC News Online: "I got a telephone call this morning [Wednesday] asking about this project." He hopes the current crisis will speed up the funding he has asked for, a "reasonable" £240,000.
If the new tests existed now in Belgium, Professor Maghuin-Rogister believes the food scare would have been less serious.
"I think there would have been fewer problems," he said. "Firstly, the cause of the sickness of the chickens would have been identified earlier. Secondly, with a cheaper and faster test, it would have been possible to examine a lot of samples."
Currently, the analysis of one food sample for dioxin costs £650 (BF40,000) and takes between four days and a month. Professor Maghuin-Rogister estimates the cost of the new test would be less than £30 and would give same-day results.
No Belgian tests
Belgium only has one laboratory, in Flanders, which is accredited to analyse food for dioxins and its remit is limited to milk.
Samples tested in an effort to identify and stem the food scandal were sent abroad, to Holland.
The contamination of the foods by polluted feed has led to government resignations and a European Union ban on Belgian poultry products.
The dioxin tests currently available require lengthy sample preparation by expert chemists. Then the chemicals are separated by gas chromatography. Each individual chemical is then measured using a mass spectrometer.
The fast and cheap method Professor Maghuin-Rogister will investigate uses genetically-engineered cells to identify the dioxin. Human or rabbit cells are altered so that they produce a special enzyme if dioxin is present.
The enzyme is called luciferase and can give off light, meaning the amount of dioxin can be measured. Tests like these are already available commercially for the analysis of environmental samples.
However, Ruth Stringer at Greenpeace's Research Laboratory in Exeter, UK, warns that these methods are currently less precise. There are 210 dioxins and their chemical cousins, furans and they typically occur at levels of a few parts per trillion.
The cell-based methods are also currently unable to "fingerprint" the dioxin which can reveal its source.
Nonetheless, the cell-based techniques would be a valuable tool making a rapid initial check.