SRI LANKA – The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an autonomous international organization that seeks to promote peaceful use of nuclear energy, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO),  have been assisting the Food Safety and Quality Assurance Laboratory (FSQAL) in Sri lanka  to develop its testing capability hence protecting consumers from contaminated products such as coconut oil.

The two agencies have been supporting laboratories to ensure competence in staff and technological capacity to meet international standards and attain accreditation.

Sri Lanka has had issues with its coconut oil, which is the most used vegetable oil in the country, and FSQAL is recognized as the most reliable testing laboratory in the country.

The FSQAL in Peradeniya was initiated in 2001, under the IAEA technical cooperation programme, to implement screening and confirmatory methodologies using nuclear techniques for the surveillance of residues.

The laboratory’s capabilities have expanded since then, through participation in coordinated research projects, technical cooperation projects and training by the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

In December 2019, the Sri Lanka Accreditation Board accredited FSQAL for chemical testing in food and agricultural products based on ISO/IEC 17025, which spells out the general requirements for the competence of testing and calibration for laboratories.

High levels of aflatoxin contamination in coconut oil may be a result of improper agricultural practices that facilitate toxigenic fungal growth on copra, like inadequate drying of the product.

 On expulsion of oil from such copra, 80% of the aflatoxin separates into the coconut oil.

Research carried out on coconut oil in the island’s market show that 20-30% of the coconut oil samples are contaminated with the mycotoxin.

This is an alarming result because unlike other agricultural commodities that get contaminated with aflatoxins, consumers get exposed to greater and continuous health risks through using coconut oil on a daily basis.

Aflatoxins thrive in warm and humid regions and are produced by certain fungi found on crops, such as corn, cereals and peanuts. Long term exposure to aflatoxin can affect the immune system and normal development, or cause cancer, according to WHO,” said Ruchika Fernando, Technical Manager/Senior Lecturer at FSQAL at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka.

“Having started from scratch, FSQAL continues to nurture its acquired technical potential and expand services in food safety testing,” said Mykola Kurylchyk, IAEA Programme Management Officer for Sri Lanka.

Research and surveillance in the recent past prompted Sri Lanka’s Health Ministry and Department of Animal Production and Health to establish aflatoxin regulations for food and feed.

“The current capabilities of the laboratory and the recognition it is getting for the vital role it plays in maintaining food safety standards in Sri Lanka are testament to the dedication and focus of the FSQAL team through the many interactions with IAEA and the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre over the years,” said Andrew Cannavan, Head of the Food and Environmental Protection Laboratory at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre.