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The first centre set up in South America to test foods for low levels of potential cancer-causing agents has been launched in the Chilean capital of Santiago.

The Centre for the Evaluation of Genotoxic Risks (CERIG) is a groundbreaking attempt in the region to ensure that Chile's food produce meets international food safety standards, both to ensure continued access to global markets for such produce, and to protect the health of its population.

Scientists at the centre, which opened at the University of Chile last month, will analyse samples of food and other products using the Ames test, a highly sensitive and internationally recognised method for measuring the mutagenic potency of substances developed by biochemist Bruce Ames at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s.

“This laboratory was founded because the health and science authorities are thinking about the future of Chilean produce”, says Ruby Valdivia of the University of Chile, one of the founders of the centre. “As far as we know, there is no other country in South America whose Health Ministry requires [such] tests."

Chile introduced legislation in 1997 that makes producers responsible for ensuring that new products do not cause mutagenic or carcinogenic damage, and requires existing products to be tested when there are grounds to believe they are causing problems. Only now, however, has the launch of the new centre meant that the infrastructure exists to enforce this law.

“As in most developing countries, the public in Chile assumes that everything sold for human consumption is safe," says Valdivia. "Companies are only interested in avoiding extra costs and keeping consumers passive. They are reluctant to pay out 3,000,000 pesos (US$4,000) to test a single product [for safety], but they [are prepared to] spend much more on marketing.”

The Ames test detects the production of genetic mutations in the bacteria Salmonella typhimurium. Easy to perform and relatively cheap, the test is widely used to identify potential carcinogens.

Ames himself has warned that excessive use of the test may be counterproductive, because any resulting increase in the cost of fruit and vegetables is likely to cause more cancer than the test prevents. Indeed, he has spoken out against mandatory testing as an unjustified intervention in free markets.

Nevertheless, many international markets now demand that products exported for human consumption are certified as being free of mutagens. Chilean companies previously had to go to foreign laboratories for this certification.

Chilean Foreign Minister, Soledad Alvear, attended the opening ceremony of the new centre, indicating the importance to the Chilean economy that such testing facilities are available. A particular concern is to guarantee the increased opportunities for trade with Europe following the signing earlier this year of a free-trade agreement between Chile and the European Union.

“The demands of the European Union and other developed countries will oblige producers to submit their products to these tests," says Valdivia. "If the market is exacting, Chileans will end up demanding that their own products meet the same standards.”

She argues that a change of culture is already visible in sectors such as the wine and timber industries: “Forestry companies are already consulting us to see whether the compounds they use are safe for their workers.”

The centre was set up with finance from the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (FONDEF). It will operate in accordance with the Good Laboratory Practice system, which sets out strict laboratory guidelines and standard operating procedures to assure reliable and comparable data.

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