Mass Spectrometry Testing Platforms for Food Safety Analysis

Modern food production involves a complex journey through a range of inspection and manufacturing processes enroute to store shelves and consumer plates. With the growing variety of food sources and products available, there is a requirement for new technologies and testing methods to address safety concerns.

Compact mass spectrometers (CMSs) offer advantages in versatility, speed, and portability, which make them attractive as food safety screening platforms. CMS technologies have evolved significantly over the years, in part to enable analyses of a growing list of applications including: pesticides, herbicides, bactericides, agrochemicals, and others. A famous controversy surrounding food stuff testing involved the discovery of milk and infant formula along with other products being adulterated with melamine. These applications, controversies, and concerns have helped drive the innovation of testing methods and devices.

In a subsequent article this month, we explore the details of compact mass spec devices, specifically the requirements for ambient ionization and the benefits and limitations of the CMS approach.

Atmospheric pressure chemical ionization (APCI) has gained popularity in trace chemical and compound screening due to it’s adaptability and versatility. This soft ionization method is used in many MS applications from triple quadruple instruments used in drug development to single quadruple compact devices use for remote trace compound identification.

Another article this month takes a closer look to reveal the mechanisms behind this soft ionization technique and advantages and limitations of the technology.

As farming and food production processes have evolved, so have methods to optimize yields and control the growth of harmful and destructive pests. There are over 1000 synthetic and natural pesticides in use today, many of which require screening tests to ensure elevated levels do not make it to the consumer.

In a subsequent article, we explore several modifications of the QuEChERS method used for preferential extraction of key compounds from food items for identification and quantitation. The standardization of these methods for national and international testing organizations such as AOAC and CEN are discussed.

Despite modern efforts, there have been situations in which food safety has been compromised and public health has been endangered. The recent incident in which melamine was identified in infant formula and pet food exports resulted in thousands of children being hospitalized and many pet deaths. It is clear that accurate analytical methods are needed to screen not only for melamine, but for the growing number of pesticides, toxins, adulterants, and processing contaminants as well.

An additional article this month explores the identification of melamine, the compound at the center of the pet food scandal. A specific method is described involving a relatively simple extraction from cat food, followed by normal phase LC separation using a HILIC column coupled to an API 3200 instrument triple quadrupole MS. The simple, fast, and sensitive method exemplifies how rapid screening tests can function using standard equipment.

The food industry is under ever increasing pressure to address the growing list of food items and imports. Furthermore, there are formidable requirements for advanced analytical methods to identify and quantify trace level compounds in items ranging from agricultural materials to end user products. Despite the challenges, innovative MS approaches promise to address these concerns and the logistical implications involved in food safety.