Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, said yesterday that the new tests will replace older laboratory procedures used for spotting the toxins, as they were lenthy and cumbersome, and led to consumers suffering unnecessary head pains after they consumed alcohol products, cheeses, chocolates, and other fermented foods. The new test, based on lab-on-a-chip technology, will help manufacturers and food processors to provide for increasing consumer demand for products that are as healthy and "risk-free" as possible. "These toxins can be a serious health problem and are more common than people think," says study leader Richard A. Mathies, a chemist with the research team, explaining that they can lead to nausea, headaches, and even respiratory disorders. These toxins can be particularly dangerous in people taking monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, an older class of antidepressant pill, he said, because they can potentially interact with the medication and cause dangerously high blood pressure. The new technique, officially termed portable microchip capillary electrophoresis, involves testing a sample of the food product on a small microchip. The components of the food products are then separated by applying an electric field, followed by a laser beam, allowing scientists to analyse the pattern of light the produced. Manufacturers will be able to use the technique to look for a range of biogenic amines including tyramine, histamine, and phenylethylamine, all of which can have possibly negative effects on human health. "The highest levels of tyramine were found in red wine, and the highest levels of histidine were found in sake," he said. As well as alcohol, the test can also be used for cheese, chocolate, fish and even sauerkraut, he added. Mathias even went so far as to predict that that the test will eventually be engineered into a PDA or other handheld device that consumers can use at home or in a restaurant, although he admitted that more research is needed before this could take place. According to other research from the US carried out this summer, the detection of biogenic amines in a food product can also signify the presence of the harmful pathogens that lead to potentially-fatal diseases such as E. coli and salmonella. In August, scientists from the University of Carolina claimed that their new 'food freshness sensor', a polymer material, identified food pathogens depending on it detecting amines. "We are currently investigating these approaches for the detection of biogenic amines in fish and other foods as a means to determine freshness and quality," the researchers said at the time. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, incidences of food-borne diseases are on the rise.
In the US, an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur each year, causing about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, while in the EU , there were 192,703 reported cases of salmonella across the 25 member states in 2004.