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French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety

One hundred attendees at the reference laboratory event on food analysis

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News of 18/04/2013

Together with the Joint Laboratories Service Unit of the Ministries of the Economy and the Budget, ANSES recently organised a one-day event of discussions that brought together the managers of laboratories participating in surveillance and control schemes set up by the health authorities in the fields of animal and plant health, and also of food safety. The goal was to better address the needs of these certified laboratories and thus strengthen surveillance networks. 



Before arriving on our plates, the food we eat has often undergone a complex chain of actions, including plant and animal production, processing, preservation and distribution. As a result, several types of microorganisms and chemicals can end up in food, and must therefore be tested for.

Food safety depends on the accountability of all those working in the food chain, “from farm to fork”: risk reduction plans must be implemented at every level to prevent microbiological and chemical contamination. These plans are subject to self-inspection, i.e. analyses carried out regularly by the manufacturers and distributors on samples taken from both raw materials and finished products, in order to be able to give early warnings in the event of contamination. 

Recent events in the news have shown the need to reinforce this regulatory scheme with inspections and surveillance carried out by the authorities themselves, independently of private interests. It is also necessary to adapt these arrangements constantly to take changing knowledge into account and to combat the emergence of new contaminants with the help of the latest technologies such as high-throughput sequencing, genomic and proteomic tools, and mass spectrometry. 


A dedicated surveillance system

For certain pathogens (viruses, bacteria, parasites) or major chemical contaminants, the health authorities therefore set up a surveillance system, based on a network of reliable laboratories that perform the official analyses. For each regulated pathogen or contaminant to be monitored, specific certified laboratories for carrying out these analyses are designated by the health authorities. 

These surveillance programmes especially involve the main foodborne microorganisms such as Salmonella, Listeria, and Campylobacter bacteria, and certain toxic substances potentially found in food (marine biotoxins, mycotoxins, heavy metals, etc.). Control and surveillance plans are also implemented to track down the agents responsible for the principal animal diseases (rabies, foot and mouth, avian influenza, etc.) and plant diseases (GM organisms prohibited in Europe, invasive plants, etc.).

For each regulated target hazard, a “reference” laboratory is designated, with responsibility for the reliability of analyses performed by all the accredited laboratories. ANSES thus holds 68 national reference mandates, 9 European mandates, and about twenty international mandates. 


A fruitful day’s discussions

Together with the Joint Laboratories Service Unit (a science unit serving the Directorate for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control and the Customs Service), ANSES recently organised a one-day event of discussions that brought together the managers of National Reference Laboratories working in the Agency’s scope of competence, with representatives of the accredited laboratories under the responsibility of these NRLs.

The purpose of this event was to identify avenues to be pursued by the reference laboratories to better address the needs of the certified laboratories. More than a hundred people gathered in Maisons-Alfort on 27 March. The presentations and discussions focused on four main themes: 

  • From development to transfer of analytical methods
  • Reference materials, control of reagents
  • Inter-laboratory proficiency tests
  • What science and technology transfers are possible between the accredited laboratories and the National Reference Laboratory?

These discussions provided an opportunity to settle on a common view of the challenges faced and set out the issues and expectations of the certified laboratories. As a result, it is hoped that working procedures will be optimised, thus reinforcing the surveillance networks. 

The Agency plans to make this event a regular feature to be repeated every two years. 

This get-together reflects the priority set by ANSES concerning the reinforcement of control and detection resources made available to the public authorities by its reference laboratories. It follows on from the creation in 2011 of a reference panel made up of the managers of the Agency’s NRLs, broadened in 2012 to include all French NRLs.


Find out more

How does a reference laboratory work?

It may have a mandate as a National Reference Laboratory (NRL), running a network of departmental laboratories, as a European Reference Laboratory (EURL), running a network of NRLs, or as an international reference laboratory (WHO, OIE or FAO Collaborating Centre ). Depending on the target pathogen or contaminant and its level of circulation, the number of accredited laboratories in the network can vary from a few to a hundred. In order to ensure the reliability of analyses performed by the network of laboratories under its responsibility, the reference laboratory organises training on the new methods of analysis it develops and carries out inter-laboratory proficiency tests (ILPTs) to verify the efficacy of the official analyses.