Nuclear technologies reach far further than most realise. While nuclear power hogs most of the headlines, nuclear technologies can have a monumental impact on the food and drink industry, from the improvement of environmental sustainability, to the development of land and water management practises, to the combating of malnutrition through positive irradiation-induced mutation and sterilisation of harmful crop-eating insects.

Food safety experts in Costa Rica are now extolling the virtues of nuclear technology in food safety, making use of nuclear diagnostic equipment and other analytical devices to detect contamination at the National Laboratory of Diagnosis and Research in Animal Health (LANASEVE).

Scientists at the laboratory have undergone training in nuclear techniques through courses carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which operates a number of educational and professional courses in nuclear-related fields.

A new nuclear standard

Costa Rica’s engagement with nuclear technology has reportedly been a key factor in establishing the country’s national food safety laboratories. Prior to setting up LANASEVE, food producers had to depend on foreign facilities to analyse their food. According to IAEA figures, for fish producers this meant around 200 samples a year being sent abroad, at a cost of CRC18.5m ($32,000).

To adhere to international trade and food safety standards, foods need to be analysed and deemed free from contaminants, especially in foreign markets. Under European Commission (EC) regulations, any food imports are required not to exceed maximum levels of contaminants such as heavy metals and aflatoxins, and the country of origin is responsible for compliance. Without ensuring low levels of contaminants, Costa Rica would be unable to trade with Europe.

LANASEVE can analyse 310 samples per month, a 25% increase on what was achievable two years ago. Speaking to IAEA, LANASEVE food safety expert Mauricio Gonzáles said that “globally, technology is getting better at detecting very small traces of residues in food, which is a good thing for consumers, but means that codes are getting stricter for exporters.”

The ability to detect toxins and other contaminants in the most developed countries tends to set the standard for imports worldwide, resulting in tighter and tighter regulations. By concentrating its efforts on high-accuracy nuclear technology, Costa Rica has safeguarded itself from stringent international trade standards.

According to the IAEA, Costa Rica’s next goal is the refinement of its detection techniques to better tackle pesticides and veterinary drugs such as antibiotics entering the food chain.

In a joint effort with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, IAEA hopes to bring nuclear food safety technology to other countries worldwide, increasing international standards and creating a safer food market for all.