Farhana Ayesha is the Deputy General Manager of TÜV SÜD’s new seafood, spices and commodity testing laboratory located in Vizag, India. The Vizag testing laboratory is a 20,000 square foot, state-of-the-art testing facility that serves one of India’s most important shipping ports for seafood exports. The Vizag facility recently received accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025, the international standard for testing laboratories, and is one of the first testing laboratories in India to receive accreditation for the testing of perishable and non-perishable food products.
Having worked with TÜV SÜD since 2006, Ayesha has more than 15 years of in-depth experience in almost every aspect of microbiological testing of food and food products. She holds a post graduate degree in microbiology from the University of Mysore, India.
Ayesha recently spoke with Food & Health E-ssentials about her experiences in food testing, the opening of the new testing facility in Vizag, and how this new facility will help support the efforts of food producers in India to bring safe food products to markets worldwide.
Food & Health E-ssentials: Tell us a little about your professional background and your research areas of interest.
Farhana Ayesha: After completing my post graduate degree from the University of Mysore in 2001, I started my career with the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), which is a premier R&D organisation in India. I was involved in several team projects mainly focusing on the microbial quality of food and the screening of mycotoxins in food. After working for four years with CFTRI, I worked for a year in a private organisation before joining TÜV SÜD in 2006. My core area of expertise is in food microbiology and laboratory quality systems.
F&HE: Congratulations on the opening of TÜV SÜD’s new testing laboratory in Vizag! Describe for us the reasons why this laboratory was established.
FA: Thank you! This laboratory is very important for us in terms of the access it provides to the seafood industry. The Indian state of Andhra Pradesh is known for aquaculture farming and a major portion of India’s exports are from this region. This lab is also important as there are no other labs in Vizag providing analytical services to the industry. Due to our close proximity to the seafood processing units, the transit time from sampling to analysis is greatly reduced, thus providing the opportunity for higher sample volumes. For the industry, transit times for sample delivery are greatly reduced which translates to faster exports.
F&HE: TÜV SÜD already has 15 other testing laboratories located in India. What is the scope of work that will be performed at the Vizag facility and how will it differ from the activities of other TÜV SÜD facilities in India?
FA: The primary scope of our lab is to provide analytical services with major focus on seafood testing. The Vizag lab is equipped to conduct trace level chemical analysis in food, as well as microbiological tests on food and water. The Vizag facility is accredited in accordance with ISO/IEC 17025:2005 by the International Accreditation Service (IAS). We differ from other TÜV SÜD labs in that our core competencies are tailored to meet the specific needs of the seafood industry.
F&HE: Can you provide more details about some of the specific testing and inspection services that the Vizag facility will provide?
FA: We can test for levels of a wide variety of chemicals found in food products, such as antibiotics and pesticide residues, PCBs, mycotoxins, histamines, metals, minerals and illegal dyes in food. We also offer inspection and food safety certification services.
F&HE: Vizag is a major exporting port for food producers and distributors based in India. Can you give us an idea of the scale of exporting activity that takes place there?
FA: The Indian seafood industry is well on its way to the $5 billion mark in exports for the financial year 2015-16. The state of Andhra Pradesh, the number one exporting region for frozen shrimp, has exports worth $1.2 billion this year. The Port of Vizag alone accounted for more than 115,000 metric tonnes of sea food exports this year alone.
F&HE: Your own scientific background is in the area of microbiological testing. What are some of the microbiological safety issues that can affect the safety and quality of food, and seafood in particular?
FA: In general, growth of microbes can cause rapid deterioration of food, creating off odours, off taste and change in the texture. Contamination of food with microbial pathogens can occur during handling, processing and post processing storage. Most of the microbiological safety issues are linked to cross contamination from food handlers, environment, equipment, storage and handling of the processed products.
The major microbiological concerns in seafood are due to the presence of pathogenic microorganisms like salmonella, vibrio, listeria monocytogenes, E.coli, shigella, S.aureus, bacillus cereus and clostridium perfringens. Another major concern in microbiological safety of food is the presence of microbial toxins, which are secondary metabolites that can cause serious illness. Notable examples include the botulinum toxin produced by clostridium botulinum, VTEC (verocytotoxin-producing E.coli) and heat-stable enterotoxins produced by S.aureus. Apart from this, growth of mould-producing mycotoxins and viruses in food also cause major food safety and spoilage issues
F&HE: In general, how effective are seafood producers and distributors in ensuring the safety of their food products? In general, what are the major areas where current practices fall short of good food safety management?
FA: As the Indian seafood exports are mostly to the European Union, Japan and the U.S., there is ample understanding of the food safety systems needed to deliver a safe end product. In general, most of the export units are certified for HACCP, FSSC 22000, BAP and GFSI. Pre- and post-process screening of microbial pathogens and chemical contaminants are often practiced by the industry, which is a good indicator of overall product safety. In addition, the Export Inspection Council of India (EIC) has laid down stringent norms for all export units.
Though various measures undertaken by the EIC and seafood processors are effective, there is still room for improvement. For example, concerns persist on presence of antibiotic residues in shrimp, high lead content in squid, octopus, histamine content in fish and high microbial counts in seafood. The industry can benefit by implementing quality practices beginning from the pre-processing stage and improve their handling of products.
F&HE: In your experience, what are some of the most important best practices that food producers and distributors can adopt to protect the quality and safety of seafood?
FA: For me, some of the most important best practices would include:
Adopting advanced techniques for rapid screening of chemical contaminants and pathogens;
Increased awareness about emerging food safety risks and their mitigation plans;
Implementing robust systems to ensure product quality throughout the supply chain;
Training of processors on safe seafood handling practices; and
Knowledge sharing within the seafood industry to understand the risks and best practices adopted by different processors.
F&HE: As you look into the future, what trends do you see in the industry that are likely to have implications for the safety and quality of seafood?
FA: The advancement in science has led to development of future technologies like nanotechnology. Nanotechnologies potentially allow us to essentially eliminate detectable levels of food contaminants. The trend is to devise nano systems which are faster, reliable, affordable and portable. Another field of importance is molecular biology which has gained prominence in screening and identification of pathogens, GMOs, identification of species and DNA/PNA-based molecular tools.
Considering these advancements, the seafood industry will have to be future-ready to meet the technological challenges. With advanced technologies, regulations are bound to change and emerging threats and risks will be identified. The seafood industry should be willing to adopt newer technologies and embrace an era in which we are able to eliminate detectable levels of contamination.
F&HE: Finally, please share with us your thoughts on how the TÜV SÜD’s Vizig testing laboratory will help its clients address these and other issues.
FA: The Vizag laboratory is designed to cater to the requirements of the food industry, with a primary focus on the seafood industry. Our lab offers a veritable bouquet of services, including chemical and residual analysis, biological testing and physico-chemical testing of water. The lab is well equipped to handle advanced testing and to develop tests to address future industry requirements.
Finally, the TÜV SÜD laboratory in Vizag is fully accredited and follows international norms for testing. Being a third-party service provider to the industry, we follow the regulations of the importing countries and upgrade our technical skills and capabilities as required. We also work very closely with the government agencies like the EIC and MPEDA, as well as seafood exporters, to ensure compliance with all regulatory requirements. As a service provider, our ultimate goals is to provide value-added services to the industry to help maintain the quality of their products.