A*Star's Ben Smith on developing low-cost pesticide tests with Pinduoduo to safeguard food safety

A*Star's Ben Smith on developing low-cost pesticide tests with Pinduoduo to safeguard food safety

Staff Writer
Staff Writer
Pinduoduo Content Team
August 17, 2020

· Pinduoduo enters research collaboration with Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation to develop a cost-effective test for contaminants like pesticides

· Lower costs enable more extensive testing and stricter enforcement, says Pinduoduo executive director Xin Yi Lim

Food adulteration may trump even drug trafficking as one of the most significant international areas of crime due to the difficulties of enforcing safety standards across jurisdictions, according to the head of a top food safety research institute.

The problem is compounded by the complexity of the global food supply chain, and requires a group effort from farmers to suppliers to regulators and consumers to tackle the issue, said Benjamin Smith, director of the Innovations in Food & Chemical Safety Programme (IFCS) at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore.

“Where it becomes more challenging now is that in the past, it used to be, you’d get your vegetables from the local market, and you knew where it was coming from,” Smith said in an episode of the Agri Matters podcast hosted by Xin Yi Lim, Executive Director of Sustainability and Agricultural Impact at Pinduoduo, a leading online agricultural marketplace in China.

Dr Benjamin Smith

“Nowadays, where the produce is being sent from one country to the next…there’re so many different points of contact along the food chain where this sort of adulteration or food fraud can take place,” said Smith, who is also part of the recently formed Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI). “If we’re not working together, we’re not going to achieve the goal.

Pinduoduo entered a research collaboration with SIFBI earlier this year to develop a more cost-effective and robust method of testing fresh produce for pesticides. The online marketplace hopes to provide its more than 800 million consumers (updated: as of March 2021) with greater quality assurance with more widespread testing by making testing more economical and convenient.

The project will focus on developing a cheaper and quicker test that can detect both specific and a mix of pesticides and be deployed at various points of the supply chain.

Conducting more tests across a wider array of produce becomes more feasible with lower costs of testing, said Lim of Pinduoduo. It also strengthens enforcement and helps stamp out bad actors over time, making the food system more secure and safe, she said.

“Today’s consumer is not just looking for fresh and affordable produce, they also want to know what they’re consuming is safe,” said Lim. “If we can bring down the cost and time taken for testing produce for contaminants, we can meaningfully increase the coverage and frequency of testing such that consuming safe and healthy food is something accessible to all.”

The following is a transcript of the Agri Matters podcast episode:

Xin Yi Lim (XY) (0:48)

Hello, and welcome to another episode of Agri Matters. I’m your host Xin Yi Lim and today on our podcast we have Dr. Benjamin Smith, Director for the Innovations in Food and Chemical Safety Program (IFCS) at A*Star. He’s also part of the recently formed Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI), whom PDD has entered into a research collaboration with. Our first project aims to develop a more cost effective and robust method of testing fresh produce for contaminants like pesticides. We hope to make testing more widespread by lowering the barriers around cost and efficiency, and hence provide consumers with greater quality assurance. Ben, thank you so much for coming on to our show today.

Benjamin Smith (BS) (1:29)

Xin Yi, thank you very much for having me.

XY (1:31)

Why don’t you just kick us off with a brief introduction of yourself as well as your areas of expertise and your work at SIFBI?

BS (1:38)

I have to say that I’m lucky to be working with a great group of people. So what I’m talking about today is a collection of work but my background actually is in the area of food and chemical safety, and risk assessment. And by training, I’m a toxicologist, having worked a number of years in the specialty ingredients industry before coming to A*Star about two years ago, where I’m now working, as you said, on the Innovations and Food and Chemical Safety Program (IFCS), and SIFBI. The focus here at A*Star and particularly for IFICS is very much looking at how do we improve the way that we test new food and consumer product chemicals, with more human-relevant fit-for-purpose assays. And of course, SIFBI’s interest is everything food, how do we look at food, new food ingredients, how do we assess the safety of those food ingredients and bring safe products to the market?

XY (2:45)

Great. Now for some of us who are perhaps new to the world of food safety and testing, could you talk us through the commonly used methods such as the basic principles behind it, and what’s the typical time that it takes to test a sample and how much does it cost?

BS (3:02)

Food Safety is very much a broad area that touches on a number of different aspects. There’s chemical contamination, of course, which is an interest of mine, and one of the aspects that we’re looking at (is) with respect to food safety and quality, with the collaborative project with yourself. But there’s also things like pathogen and microbial safety, physical safety from things like radiation sources, so many different types of testing approaches that can be done.

Typically, they fall into two main areas, analytical approaches for looking at what is there, how much is there? And so, these are things like standard techniques like gas chromatography or liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, trying to work out what materials are present in a sample. And then there’ll be more of the biological testing, which is focused on what do these chemicals or microbes in a product actually do, what is their effect?

And so that sort of testing would be more cellular-based type testing, or in some cases, even animal testing. And so the time for these sorts of tests, and the cost of them varies depending on what you’re doing. But as a rough mark, a lot of the analytical work probably ranges in the space of about a hundred to thousands of dollars of testing, and the biological safety testing ranges in the sort of thousands to potentially hundreds of thousands depending on what level of testing you need to do.

And it also relates back when you look at what are some of the challenges with regard to food safety testing at the moment. There’s the obviously the quality control and safety, the contamination of food products that are already out on the market. And so that’s doing a lot of analytical checks for importing and exporting of materials, quality certification, making sure that you don’t have nasties like heavy metals or mycotoxins present in your samples, pesticides, those sorts of things.

And then for new materials that are being brought to the market, it’s a different level, particularly if it’s something that’s very new, that needs to be authorized and approved to bring on market, you would have a lot more of the toxicological tests needing to be done to actually show that the product is safe for consumption before it can be brought on to market.

XY (5:43)

Got it. Since we’re on that topic, why don’t we just dive a bit deeper into the challenges in the area of testing for food safety today? I think we’ve seen an array of food safety related scandals, perhaps in the past decade, for instance, melamine in milk. Is there perhaps a concern with more unknown contaminants proliferating? Or is the challenge perhaps more on the technological innovation side?

BS (6:10)

I think it’s a bit of both. A lot of the issues that arise, particularly with the unknown toxicants and some of these issues like adulteration is very much around the complexity and globalization of the food chain, and a lot more different sources and inputs coming into that chain, where we can have different points of contamination. Locally from a challenge perspective here in Singapore, a lot of our challenges, of course, are things like space and resource constraints, which have made us vulnerable to global trends that impact food supply, and of course, food safety. As we see things with climate change urbanization, new business models, new food products, we have to make sure that we’re actually supporting the safety of these foods coming in because Singapore being an island country, we’ve gotten over 90% of our food is imported. So for us, there is a lot of focus in understanding and testing the foods coming in to make sure that we don’t have contamination. And that source of contamination as you said, unknown toxicants, but also understanding, not just testing for known things, but understanding how changes in the region can actually have an effect.

So if we look particularly to the project that we’re working on in collaboration, what we’re focused on pesticides and pesticide residues, so in Southeast Asia and in Asia as a whole, a lot of use and reliance on pesticides is still very important when it comes to agriculture, controlling the food supply, preventing pest impacts on the food supply. But we need to be able to control how we test for those pesticides. And typically, that’s done by screening for known pesticides that can be used. But we know also in this region that many of the unknown pesticides or even chemicals that typically wouldn’t be used as registered pesticides may be being used. And so there we have to balance our focus on knowing regulated materials, and unknown, potentially contaminated materials and certainly have to balance untargeted and targeted analysis.

I think also in this area where it gets complicated, too, is as we start increasing the complexity of the food chain, and we start putting pressure on the food supply, there’s an economic aspect as well that makes adulteration and intentful contamination a lot more of a problem. And in today’s age, you could argue that food adulteration is actually one of the biggest international areas of crime, even potentially over drug trafficking, because there’s no real penalties to the people that do the adulteration. The effect is, of course on the companies selling and the consumers. And so there’s a lot of people trying to test out the regulators and the safety assessors by slipping in different compounds. You mentioned melamine in milk to boost the protein content, but even simple things that we’re seeing things like red brick dust in spices for things like saffron, to make it look red, plastic rice is another example, Sudan Red is another material that you see a lot in Asia poking up in things like eggs, because it gives eggs a very red look to the yolk, which is, of course, something that a lot of people in this region see as a very good thing. So as we start to improve our methods for testing, the guys that are wanting to adulterate also try and look for new ways to get around that.

XY (10:30)

So that certainly sounds very challenging because it’s a bit of a permanent cat and mouse game, right where you catch something and then they might come up with some other workaround. I think I’ve seen some numbers estimating that, you know, food fraud has been estimated to cost the food industry about anything between $30 billion to $40 billion per year. So this is actually a pretty massive problem and pretty pervasive as well, as long as there’s some kind of economic incentive, and the players feel like they can get away with it. Then you’ll always find some sort of wrongdoing in this regard.

BS (11:04)

Yes, definitely and where it becomes more challenging now is that in the past, it used to be, you’d get your vegetables from the local market, or the person with their cat selling it at the end of the street, and you knew where it was coming from. Nowadays, where they produce being sent from one country to the next, and then into a new country for sale, there’s so many different points of contact along the food chain where this sort of adulteration or food fraud can take place. So it does become more complex, and it’s also why it’s important to ensure that there are the appropriate testing and checkpoints across the supply chain, but also linking with traceability of course and so putting the checks and the traceability together is key in today’s global environment of food.

XY (12:00)

I guess the stringency with which standards are applied is probably all the more pressing given the higher stakes right now. So we mentioned our project a little bit, I was thinking this might be a good point to just give a simple introduction of what our research project is trying to solve, as well as the potential value it can create, right, particularly, I think, to some of the points earlier mentioned that it’s not necessarily just about the technology, but it’s also maybe making it a bit easier to enforce.

BS (12:33)

This research project, it’s a very interesting one. Although we’re focused for this project on a particular area of contamination, which is pesticides and agricultural residues, the approach and the application for why we’re doing it can be extended into other forms of contamination. And so this is sort of a starting point.

And really we’re trying to with this project, look at two particular aspects. One, how do we improve the speed and accuracy of point-of-contact or point-of-sale testing. And so that gets to this issue of globalization and e-commerce products coming into from many different suppliers into a warehouse and then going out to many different people, how do you actually manage that chain and have the right testing in place at different points along that chain before you get to the consumer.

And when you talk about e-commerce, you need to be able to have that at the source. There’s a lot of cross-border activities, a lot of different testing that needs to go on and so being able to develop approaches that can strengthen the quality of the supply chain and de-risk the products coming in and out before they get to the consumer is really one of the key focuses of this project.

And then I think the interesting aspect for us focusing in on pesticides and agricultural residues is key. In today’s day and age of food security, we need to have a lot of reliance still on crops. It’s still a huge use of pesticides, particularly in Asia and in the tropical regions of Southeast Asia, where there’s a lot of pests that can affect crops and growth produce. These types of materials are heavily regulated by the regulators, there are set levels that need to be maintained, and that we can’t go above in the diet. And that’s what we’re trying to check for in this project and improve the accuracy of how we can pick up these types of products.

And the third sort of point as well is that we’re not just looking here at one material or one contaminant. We have foods coming from many different areas, but you tend to find is that a whole range of different pesticides might be used, or in some countries, the farmer will just take bits and pieces of leftover pesticides and bottles that they have, and use it to protect their crops. So it can be a mixture of anything. And often there’s a lot of difficulty in determining which pesticides are present and in what amounts, and the “which” is a key question because these different types of pesticides have different chemical actions and different effects on the body. And we need to be able to understand how much of these different types are there because they can actually have an aggregate or additive effect. And so another part of this project is actually looking at how do we determine these products in the environment in the food and mixtures of them? How can we distinguish specific pesticides or groups of pesticides on a product that may be in a mix of 30 or 40 different pesticides at once. So increasing speed, increasing accuracy, increasing the complexity of the analysis to target mixtures and being able to do that, in a rapid form at point-of-release or point-of-sale is sort of what we’re focusing on with this project.

XY (17:05)

So effectively, actually at the end of the project, we would have something that is kind of like a pesticide fingerprinting, whereby you can sort of look at something and then be able to tell that, okay, this has traces of A, B and C, and it’s perhaps the B and C working together that’s the most problematic.

BS (17:26)

Correct, and when it comes to pesticides, and particularly in this region, of course, there are those that are regulated and most of the farmers out there and the people selling products are doing the right thing. But there’s also many pesticides and chemicals that are being used that shouldn’t be used, that we may not even be aware of, but they have similar actions, similar, similar chemical structures, similar activity. So in addition to being able to improve the accuracy of knowing and regulate pesticides, what we’re also trying to be able to do with this fingerprinting and some aspects of machine learning, which is a sort of second part of the project once we’ve done the initial analytical and method development, is actually look at how we can predict also potentially related or unknown pesticides that we haven’t necessarily been screening for that may pop up. So as an example, there are certain pesticides, a lot of the chlorinated pesticides and things like DDT, these sorts of materials, which nowadays you wouldn’t even think about looking for in countries like the US and Europe, but here in this region, we need to be mindful that they can still pop up because some of them are actually allowed to be used because of control of pests like mosquitoes and malaria and these sorts of things. So it’s quite a complex world when you look at pesticides and the chemistry. And so developing a system or a technique that can allow us to discriminate is key and be as accurate as possible for as wide a range of pesticides is also important.

XY (19:28)

And I think the other thing that you’re sharing has really highlighted is that the whole issue of food safety is actually a very complex one that involves not just testing and implementation, having the right policies in place, but it also relates to further upstream issues, whether it be the economic position of the farmers in the region and their economic motivations, as well as just the greater nature of globalization that we see today. A given product passes through many different hands before it finally reaches the consumer for PDD’s research collaboration with SIFBI, this food safety project is our starting point. And there are certainly many other aspects in the greater agri-food supply chain that we will be interested to study. So perhaps Ben, if you could just close us off by mentioning some of the other areas that are of interest to SIFBI and the role that SIFBI plays in agrifood research for the region.

BS (20:33)

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that all of this work requires a group effort from the farmers through to the suppliers, the manufacturers, regulators and consumers. And if we’re not working together, we’re not going to achieve the goal and that’s really one of the reasons that why SIFBI actually formed, is to bring together the different people working on food and agri science with a common goal to actually be a one-stop shop when it comes to food science, and we’re not just doing it in food safety, we’re doing it across the chain. We’ve got a number of groups that are looking at how do you develop new products. And that’s where the biotechnology angle comes in things like new fungal strains to produce new proteins. We’ve got teams that are looking at how do we actually better process food to either make it more tasty or more healthy. And so how do we ensure that the food that’s being brought to our plates is healthy, nutritious and safe, and we can bring the right amount of food from a food security perspective to the market with all of the constraints that we’re facing today. So that’s sort of SIFBI’s goal is to be able to focus on all these aspects across the food chain. And uniquely, of course, we’re here in Singapore, we’re in Asia. Our interest is very much on how do we develop the right food, food products and food system for the Asian consumer.

XY (22:31)

Yeah, I think that definitely speaks to a lot of things that Pinduoduo is interested in, given that a lot of retail, a lot of consumption habits are moving online, the same time there’s also a lot of information online, how do we help consumers make better choices and how do we actually give them that assurance, right, that what they are buying what they are consuming, has been tested or is actually going to benefit them?

I think that is a huge area that a lot of retailers should be thinking about, so thank you so much, Ben for your sharing today. We look forward to more collaboration ahead.