Creating Confidence in Mycotoxin Sampling for Food Safety


Cuckston, Georgina

Science Communications Manager

Image above: as ‘Biological Sciences building at Queen’s University Belfast, where IGFS and the ASSET Technology Centre are based’.

Today we speak to Rossa Donnelly, MSc in Advanced Food Safety at Queen’s University, Belfast. Rossa has previously completed a degree in Food Quality, Safety and Nutrition with Professional Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast in which she contributed to research into novel drugs to prevent or delay the development of Alzheimer’s Disease. She is currently completing a project in the Institute for Global Food Security and School of Biological Sciences, recently ranked 1st in the Research Exercise Framework (REF) UK rankings. She has a passion for food and food safety, developed through an R&D internship in a food fraud research group. During her placement she designed and tested novel rapid methods to detect food fraud in corn. She uses this interest in food in her own life, researching new aspects associated with the cooking of food and creating new food recipes.

Now on placement supporting the Food Safety Coalition, she is exploring sampling and methods to help address the challenge of aflatoxin contamination in raw materials.

Hi Rossa, lovely to meet you. My first question for you is about your interest in food safety. What prompted you to join this project?

It started after graduating from my BSc in food quality, safety and nutrition when I undertook a one-year internship in a food manufacturing company working with their food fraud team. During my placement I focused on validating new methods for the detection of food contaminants, which opened my eyes to the world of food fraud. This work dramatically increased my awareness of the types and scale of contaminants that may be present in food and the work that food manufacturers do continuously to ensure that food is safe for the consumer.

I felt inspired by the work I saw every day in the lab, and it deepened my fascination with current technologies available to detect food contamination or even the intentional adulteration of foodstuffs. It helped me realize my ambition to specialize in the area of food science, to help ensure safe food for all.

Food contamination by toxins is another area which impacts food. Many are not aware of mycotoxins. These toxins are produced by fungi that are present all over the world and present a health risk across the supply chain, so a significant volume of work goes into mitigating and preventing these toxins. That is why I wanted to join the Food Safety Coalition project; to strengthen my knowledge of mycotoxin contamination with the ultimate aim of supporting measures in mitigating the contamination of this toxin in food, with a focus on crops grown within developing countries. The Food Safety Coalition is currently focused on aflatoxins – the most toxic type of mycotoxin – given the serious health threat they pose.


What actions do you believe are necessary for the next step of helping solve for mycotoxins in the food supply chain?

I would say that public awareness of mycotoxins is relatively low compared with, say, pathogens such as Salmonella or E.coli. I believe that in order for us to make any real progress in improving mitigation and monitoring programs it is crucial to increase the general awareness of their existence, including imparting knowledge on aspects such as which types are considered the most harmful. Or what actions stakeholders in the supply chain can take to mitigate against these toxins, for example, what a farmer can do to minimize the growth of the mycotoxin producing fungi in the first instance.

In order to effectively tackle the problem, as experts, we also need to know the scale of it. One way we can do this is through the development and implementation of globally harmonized sampling plans, that will facilitate the collation of data obtained from raw materials testing across regions and countries. Therefore, it is essential for the next stage of research that we know which companies or producers are following official mycotoxin sampling guidelines in their respective countries.  Once we have gathered this initial data, we may be able to determine the optimal globally harmonized sampling strategy for mycotoxins, including aspects such as the minimum sufficient sample frequency and sample size, to accurately determine the likelihood of mycotoxin contamination within a batch of raw material.  

So, what impact do you see your work having on food safety in general?


I am currently working on a model sampling framework for aflatoxins.  By devising a universal set of recommended sampling and testing methods to determine the likelihood and scale of aflatoxin contamination in a crop such as corn, we hope to reduce the risk of aflatoxin contaminated food entering the supply chain. This should in turn reduce food waste as the contaminated grain will not be mixed with uncontaminated batched during processing. This would not only strengthen safety, but it will also help reduce associated economic losses for developing nations in particular.

Fascinating work and sounds like it could make a real impact on everyone involved in  the food supply chain. Was there anything surprising that you have found while conducting your review of best practices?

The most surprising thing I have learnt is how inconsistent various sampling procedures  are across the world, in practically all the important factors, including sample size, frequency, and overall recommended best practice. Some of the sampling protocols in the literature even directly contrast with one another, and focus on different sampling aspects, so you can easily understand how challenging it must be for a producer or supplier to be confident they are following best practices for their crop. Even more than that though there is limited evidence to support the guidelines, and limited research indicating who uses which sampling protocols. This is why we are undertaking this work as part of the food safety coalition. By leveraging a broad array of stakeholders across the food supply chain, we hope to form a coherent and consistent approach to best practice for mycotoxin sampling, backed by the most up-to-date research available.

And finally, what do you hope to do once you have completed your part of the food safety coalition project?

My first priority is to finish my final thesis and complete my Masters.  Once I have completed my studies I hope to travel to Canada, to experience a new culture, and adventure through new cities and surroundings. From there I aim to start a career in food fraud in R&D, to continue my work contributing to the prevention of food fraud and adulteration incidents, thus improving global food safety and security, and helping ensure safe food for all.


About the Food Safety Coalition

The Food Safety Coalition meeting took place, bringing together a group of like-minded organizations to collaborate and progress solutions in the critical area of food safety, specifically data and knowledge sharing to address the challenge of aflatoxin contamination in raw materials. This blog contributes to Workstream 1 and was completed through a collaboration between Queen’s University, Belfast and Mars, Incorporated.

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