A Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometer, GCMS. This equipment is used to test for chemical contaminants such as pesticides, acaricides, or veterinary drug residues in fish, beef, fruits, honey, sugar and milk. The presence of chemicals in food makes it unsafe.

Want to know if it is safe? Test it before you taste it!

By David Eboku

From time immemorial testing has always been a concern for man. A story is told that an early man would give his dog to taste food to test if it is safe. If a dog ate the food it would be safe. Indeed, if it was not safe the dog would not eat and the man would abandon the idea regardless of how nice the food looks.

A modern man has more desires than just safety. We now need to know if the product will last for long, is authentic or if it will taste nice. Whatever nice means to one.

At Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) we continue the tradition of testing. We test anything from food to electrical appliances for safety, quality and performance. Is your food safe? If it is not safe, it could kill you. Or is it your kettle? If it is not safe, say it is not properly insulated, it could be dangerous to you. May be you are building your mansion and you do not want it to collapse on your builders let alone your loved ones. You need to test materials before, during and after use.

Annually, the UNBS laboratories test more than 20,000 samples of food, cosmetics, building materials and others. During the FY July 2020 to June 2021, the laboratories received 24,012 samples, tested and issued reports for 22,053 samples. This means that we were able to meet more than 90% of the demand for our services. On average, the laboratories test about 1,800 samples a month.

Our test reports support consumer protection by providing results that are accurate, reliable and can be traced to specific standards and reference materials. Our test results help producers during product development, quality control and trade including assuring buyers of the quality of their products. Producers including farmers, processors, manufacturers, exporters, importers and distributors, can submit samples for testing at any point in the value chain facilitating exchange of products that are safe, of expected quality and fit for purpose. In addition to supporting regulators and producers, UNBS also support researchers and students to test products for certain characteristics. Such tests are used to develop standards, formulate products and for academic purposes. This support is able to enhance value addition, Buy Uganda Build Uganda, import substitution and export promotion policies.

Apart from issuing test reports, our in house scientists assist with the interpretation of standards to provide clarity on the requirements for conformity. Our explanations of test reports provide information on processes, products and systems used to produce these products. This adds value to our customers.

UNBS provides testing services to protect consumers, support industries and facilitate trade and research. Our laboratories include the Food Safety Laboratories (Chemistry and Microbiology), Materials Engineering Laboratory and Electrical Engineering Laboratory.

The food safety laboratories consist of the chemistry and microbiology laboratories. These laboratories are Internationally Accredited by the South African National Accreditation System, SANAS of South Africa according to ISO/IEC 17025. This means that the test reports are recognised and can be used globally hence facilitating exports of Uganda goods.

Both chemical and microbiology laboratories test  various foods and non-food products including milk, beef, fish, honey, fruits, vegetables, carbonated and non-carbonated soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, water and cosmetics, paints, textiles, leather, sanitizers, disinfectants, face masks, surgical gowns, clean air suits, toilet paper, diapers, sanitary towels and other products.

The chemistry laboratory test for contaminants in food and feed. Tests are often required for pesticide residues, residues of veterinary drugs, mycotoxins such as aflatoxins, heavy metals e.g. lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium that are toxic and not desirable in food or feed. In addition, we conduct tests for chemical composition of products that determine their quality, performance and authenticity.

Our microbiology laboratory specialises in tests against pathogenic organisms that may occur in food, feed and other products. This helps assure that products are produced in clean environment and do not present safety concerns to consumers. These tests include Total Plate Count, Total Coliforms, Escherichia coli, Yeast and Moulds, Vibrio cholerae, Enterobacteriacea, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Streptococcus faecalis, Listeria monocytogenes, Candida albicans, Sulphite reducing anaerobes and Clostridium perfringens. We also perform general tests e.g. microbial cleanliness, anti-bacterial activity, bactericidal efficacy and environment monitoring.

Engineering materials laboratory; tests materials such as steel, concrete, cement, wood, sand, leather, textile, ceramics, plastics, petroleum, and stone aggregates for conformity to specified quality requirements. Here a broad lists of products for industrial and domestics applications,  such as furniture, roofing sheets, tiles, blocks, bricks, shoes, water pipes, paints, bitumen, kitchen ware, nails, fencing products, electrical poles, and the likes, are tested for design and performance qualities that provides for safety ,applicability, and value for money to the consumer, with consequential economic gain to the producer. In case a product is not conforming to prescribe standards after testing, the laboratory can also be consulted on improvement measures, and this may be vital for the manufacturing industries.

The Electrical Testing Laboratory is responsible for conformity assessment of the developing electro-technical industry in line with vision 2040. This is done through testing of both locally manufactured products (by Small and Medium Enterprises) and imported products. The range of products tested currently include; batteries, Photo voltaic products, conductors, insulators, transformers, cable, domestic appliances among many products. The electrical laboratory further supports the electro-technical industry through developing and approving test methods/ practices which are helpful in the improving the quality

In general our testing laboratories support other laboratories in the country through our Inter-laboratory Comparison Scheme (ILC). In this scheme we share samples with other laboratories and compare results. This internationally accepted practise helps build capacity and confidence in private and public laboratories to support industry. In this scheme, products tested include potable water, UHT milk, soft drinks, fruit juices, cosmetics, coffee, cement, electricity cables and iron bars.

We acknowledge support from the government and development partners that enables us acquire some of the modern equipment to undertake tests. We are grateful to the Private sector Foundation and MasterCard Foundation Program, TradeMark East Africa (TMEA), the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA and other partners, who have provided most of the state of the Art analytical equipment like the Gas Chromatograph mass Spectrometer (GCMS), High Performance Liquid Chromatography, HPLC, Charm II equipment, Liquid Chromatography Mass spectrometer (LCMS/MS, Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer, AAS, Induction Coupled plasma (ICP-OES). Further support is required to enhance further testing especially in the electro-technical industry.

The writer is a Manager of the Testing department at the Uganda National Bureau of Standards.