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R-Biopharm Rhône supports Glasgow Caledonian study into mycotoxins in ethnic shops
The potential prevalence of deadly moulds in ethnic shops such as Chinese supermarkets is being investigated by Glasgow Caledonian University, backed by R-Biopharm Rhône, the manufacturer and Scotland's biggest exporter of diagnostic test kits.
Professor Kofi Aidoo, of the food bioscience division of the department of life sciences at the university, is leading a specialist team collecting samples from foods such as cereals, nuts, pulses, spices and dried fruits.
Professor Aidoo and his researchers - he has had 24 working with him over the period of his research - are looking for evidence of mycotoxins, produced by fungi growing in food, which can have a devastating impact on the human body.
Ochratoxin, found in cereals, dried fruit, coffee, wine and spices, causes kidney cancer. Aflotoxin, one of the most virulent toxins, causes liver cancer. Fumonisin, derived from a common grain mould, causes throat cancer.
He said: "Mycotoxins are a world-wide problem, especially in warmer regions where conditions are right for the organisms to grow. So food that we import, foods that are not produced locally, are prone to growth of these fungi and production of the toxins.
"There are particular foods which are more likely to contain the toxins, but normally it is the way they are stored which will encourage or discourage these toxigenic fungi to grow."
Professor Aidoo said that there were issues with shops which kept these kind of products imported from suspect areas where adequate food safety checks may be lacking and that sampling of the product for analysis could be problematic - for instance, a sample from one part of a consignment could be clear while a sample from another part of the same consignment could be affected.
The GCU team - the professor has two students working with him at the moment - analyse samples using test kits from R-Biopharm Rhône, which supplies the agri-food industry and sells to major multinational businesses in the food industry. Furthermore, test kits from R-Biopharm are routinely used in undergraduate and postgraduate practical classes.
The company, based in the West of Scotland Science Park in Glasgow, was founded 25 years ago to make mycotoxin kits, which test for poisons created by moulds. R-Biopharm Rhône's biggest selling product is immunoaffinity columns, of which it made 800,000 last year. These columns use antibodies to bind and measure elements in samples and operate at high levels of sensitivity.
Managing director Simon Bevis said: "Our test kits detect parts per billion and work is going on towards parts per trillion. To put this in perspective, identifying seven parts per billion is akin to picking out seven particular people from the entire population of the world."
Professor Aidoo's research started when he obtained funding from the Scottish Funding Council to look at ethnic shops in the West of Scotland. He said: "The problem with produce that comes in from warmer parts of the world is that the toxins may already have been pre-formed.
"When you test the sample it may not have the toxin, but if the toxigenic fungus is present and the sample is kept in certain conditions, such as a warm area with high humidity, the toxin may be produced. The problem is that if you buy bulk - and many ethnic homes maintain warmer temperatures – such an environment may be conducive for fungal growth and toxin production."
Professor Aidoo's team looked at ethnic shops for produce which originated in warm countries and found that some of the produce contained the toxins. He said environmental health authorities have an immediate concern about food safety.
He said further resources were needed to continue to obtain samples in order to assemble meaningful data.