Marco Pucci, TÜV SÜD’s Business Line Manager for residues, dioxins and wet-chemistry, has worked for more than 20 years in developing testing methods to assess the safety of a wide range of food and beverage products (including wine!). Pucci recently spoke with Food & Health E-ssentials about his experience in food testing, some of the more interesting challenges he has faced during his career, and the benefits for food producers of working with an experienced food testing laboratory.
Food & Health E-ssentials: Describe for us your professional background and how you got your start in chemical analysis.
Marco Pucci: I started my career as chemical technical analyst in 1996. Over the past years I have worked in many different areas of the laboratory, developing my experience in various chemical analysis techniques in both the environmental and food departments. I have analysed many matrices, using various analytical techniques, ranging from the standard analysis of water, wines and oils, to the more complex ones including multi-residual analysis of pesticides and research of dioxins on food and environmental matrices using high-resolution magnetic mass (HRMS) detection. During the last ten years I have also worked on the development of new analytical methods. In recent years I have also focused specifically on the analysis of dioxins in food and environmental samples.
F&HE: So some of your recent work has focused on the analysis of dioxins in food and in the environment. What have you learned from that experience?
MP: Speaking about dioxins and furans, we refer to 17 molecules called congeners. They are very toxic substances including the famous "TCDD" considered to be carcinogenic by the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO). Dioxins are fat-soluble substances that tend to accumulate in fatty tissues of both humans and animals. In fact, 80 percent of dioxin exposure in humans is attributable to the consumption of animal-based foods, such as fish, meat, eggs, milk and derivatives.
My experience in this field has developed through two techniques. We started with the GG-MS-QQQ (among the first in Italy to have a test method accredited by "Accredia,” the Italian accrediting authority), subsequently applying the HG/HR-MS technique in high resolution magnetic sector. The latter is one of the most fascinating and delicate techniques that I have dealt with during my career.
From an analytic standpoint, the most curious and interesting side, after analysing several thousand samples in recent years, is to be able to understand the link between the sample and the source of pollution. The congeners distribution allows us to distinguish the contamination of industrial waste (rich of furans) from combustion waste containing plastic substances (rich of dioxins). The most polluted food samples that we have analysed included a range of different cheeses from India and a food supplement, which was probably polluted by highly contaminated clays.
F&HE: You’ve also developed a number of important analytical models for detecting chemicals in food and beverage products. How has that research contributed to improved food safety levels?
MP: In our field, the research & development of new methodologies is crucial. Every day we are asked to find and apply new methods, and increase the number of analysis. This is often triggered by alarming findings traced to fraudulent food production or packaging, the launch on the market of poor quality, non-tested products, issues linked to fungi development and control, the usage of pesticides or the discovery of accidentally contaminated food products (dioxins).
Our continuous research and development ensures a highly qualified methodology based on strict analytical parameters which will guarantee the required control of food products in order to safeguard the customer and final consumers.
F&HE: How have the methods of chemical testing and analysis of food and beverage products changed over the past few years? What improvements in testing have you seen?
MP: Over the last couple of years, thanks to research and development as well as technological developments, changes and improvements in the methods we apply has occurred. Automation, a time reduction in the analysis phase and the availability of data replication have been vital for the development of new methods. One of the main enhancements has been the possibility of using new methods (e.g., HPLC-MS-QQQ e GC-MS-QQQ) that increase the sensitivity of the techniques in researching and detecting dangerous substances vis-à-vis health at minimal/low levels.
F&HE: pH Laboratory gained worldwide attention in the 1980s as the first laboratory to identify the presence of methyl alcohol in wine. Tell us a little bit about that experience and the changes that resulted.
MP: The discovery of methanol’s presence in wine rapidly accelerated the growth of our laboratory. When I joined the company, we had less than 15 employees here and only three lab technicians. Today, we employ over 120 individuals. Intuition, constant research, team spirit and a common sense of belonging have allowed us to grow and affirm our position as one of the leading laboratories in our field.
F&HE: In addition to chemical testing of food and beverages, what are some of the other services provided by pH Laboratory?
MP: Other than the food department, we have two additional departments where environmental analysis is conducted (check on polluting sites, emissions in the atmosphere, etc.), and food contact where we conduct analysis of food packaging materials as well as other points of contact with food.
F&HE: From your perspective, what is the greatest food safety risk facing consumers, and what are the potential consequences?
MP: I don’t believe there is one big risk. Instead, it’s the sum of minor risks which could seriously impact consumers’ health. Globalisation has totally contaminated the food market and more and more often we find ourselves sitting at a table where the food comes from far away it is composed of ingredients originating from different countries. The production of such food may not be perfectly controlled, or it may not be consistent with the requirements of legislation intended to protect the consumer. It is not rare for foodstuffs to be contaminated with mycotoxins and dioxins and PCBs (just to cite some of the more toxic substances), pesticides or other contaminated derivatives from food frauds (e.g., the Melamine scandal), contaminating substances from packaging or non-compliant containers, etc. Furthermore, non-compliance with cold chain requirements and wrongful preservation systems of certain food products can pose very serious microbiological risks to human health.
F&HE: In dealing with this and other food safety risks, what steps can food producers and suppliers take to make their food products safer for consumption?
MP: Producers should have as primary objective the quality of their product and derive their gain based precisely on their product quality levels as a distinguishing trademark on the market. Unfortunately for some producers, the financial return is far more important than the health of consumer. Therefore, “honest” producers need to implement far more controls, using quality scales and well-recognised certifications to distinguish their products.
F&HE: How can pH Laboratory and TÜV SÜD help food producers and suppliers ensure the ongoing safety of products they sell?
MP: pH Laboratory offers a full range of services to aid producers to guarantee a constant and consistent level of safety on their food products. Our three departments offer innovative instruments and highly qualified technicians that can conduct the necessary testing and analysis to guarantee compliance with the highest food safety requirements and standards.