Ensuring the Safety and Quality of Foodstuffs Produced in China: The Role of ICP-MS

Nov 01, 2011

This study focuses on the use of inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) in Chinese laboratories for measuring toxic, essential, and nutritional elements in foods. In particular, we describe recent advances in detection systems and interference removal capabilities to provide fast and simple multielement analysis over a wide concentration range for many different types of food samples.

Globalization of the food industry has opened up new markets to many countries, resulting in greater scrutiny by regulatory agencies and driving the need for increased food testing and safety. China, in particular, is a major provider of food products on a global scale, ranking in the top five nations for food-related exports. Unfortunately, a number of food scares, including melamine contamination in pet foods and infant formula, has placed China in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons. China is a key supplier of fruits, vegetables, rice, nuts, beans, and products derived from them, including juices, preserves, pastes, and purees. For example, according to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT), China was by far the biggest exporter of nonconcentrated apple juice and the third largest exporter of tea in 2008, exporting more than $1.1 billion and $0.7 billion, respectively (1).

The Chinese government is committed to protecting consumers and customers. This is illustrated by the annual China International Food Safety & Quality (CIFSQ) conference and exposition, which will be held in Beijing this November (2). Now in its fifth year, this conference brings together regulators and industry stakeholders from around the world, giving them the opportunity to meet, collaborate, and provide solutions to strengthen global food safety. The demand for improvements in food quality also has seen a rise in the demand for analytical instrumentation over the past decade as laboratories strive to meet ever-more stringent food quality regulations. Techniques such as gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) and liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC–MS) for detecting and quantifying pesticide levels; nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) for product classification and ingredient identification of juices; and inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) for carrying out the multielement determinations of macro and trace minerals in foodstuffs, are all powerful analytical tools commonly used in Chinese food testing laboratories.

Elemental Nutrients in Food

Foods and agricultural crops contain various concentrations of nutrients, which can range from trace amounts to percentage levels. However, while most of their nutritional content is intended for maintaining good health, the benefits of the desired mineral content can be compromised by concentrations of elements considered to be toxic to humans or animals. The health effects of dietary exposure to different levels of minerals and metals have been widely investigated, and based on the concentrations at which deficiencies and toxicities are observed, inorganic elements may be divided into four main groups:

  • Macrominerals: A regular intake of large quantities of elements such as Ca, Mg, Na, K, P, S, Fe, Cu, and Zn is needed to sustain life.
  • Essential minerals: A smaller quantity of each of these elements ensures good health. Examples include Mn, Cr, Se, B, Br, Si, I, V, Li, Mo, Co, Ge, and others.
  • Trace elements: Some studies propose the human body's requirement for other elements like F, As, Rb, Sn, Nb, Sr, Au, Ag, Cr, and Ni.
  • Toxic metals: Dietary intake of deleterious elements such as Be, Hg, Pb, Cd, Al, Sb, Bi, Ba, and U should be minimized.

Greater exposure to toxic metals in the modern diet has been suggested as a contributing factor to the increase in diseases such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, and cancer. Similarly, looking upstream in our food supply chains and in particular to the agricultural industry, it is becoming increasingly clear that providing the correct balance of macrominerals and trace metals in the feed of livestock helps them thrive and remain disease-free. For example, magnesium intake is critical to prevent grass tetany, a fatal metabolic disorder in cattle. Selenium is known to be a major factor in the fertility of cows, and cobalt supplements are often necessary for the well-being of sheep. Accurate measurement of elemental composition in food and agricultural products is therefore essential to ensure product safety and maintain adequate levels of nutritional content.

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