Using uncertainty associated with detection of aflatoxin in shelled corn as a model, the uncertainty associated with detecting chemical agents intentionally added to food products was evaluated. Accuracy and precision are two types of uncertainties generally associated with sampling plans. Sources of variability that affect precision were the primary focus of this investigation. Test procedures used to detect chemical agents generally include sampling, sample preparation, and analytical steps. The uncertainty of each step contributes to the total uncertainty of the test procedure. Using variance as a statistical measure of uncertainty, the variance associated with each step of the test procedure used to detect aflatoxin in shelled corn was determined for both low and high levels of contamination. For example, when using a 1-kg sample, Romer mill, 50-g subsample, and high-performance liquid chromatography to test a lot of shelled corn contaminated with aflatoxin at 10 ng/g, the total variance associated with the test procedure was 149.2 (coefficient of variation of 122.1%). The sampling, sample preparation, and analytical steps accounted for 83.0, 15.6, and 1.4% of the total variance, respectively. A variance of 149.2 suggests that repeated test results will vary from 0 to 33.9 ng/g. Using the same test procedure to detect aflatoxin at 10,000 ng/g, the total variance was 264,719 (coefficient of variation of 5.1%). The sampling, sample preparation, and analytical steps accounted for 41, 57, and 2% of the total variance, respectively. A variance of 264,719 suggests that repeated test results will vary from 8,992 to 11,008 ng/g. Foods contaminated at low levels reflect a situation in which a small percentage of particles is contaminated and sampling becomes the largest source of uncertainty. Large samples are required to overcome the “needle-in-the-haystack” problem. Aflatoxin is easier to detect and identify in foods intentionally contaminated at high levels than in foods with low levels of contamination because the relative standard deviation (coefficient of variation) decreases and the percentage of contaminated kernels increases with an increase in concentration.

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Author notes

The use of trade names in this publication does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service of the products named nor criticism of similar ones not mentioned.

Paper no. BAE 2004-04 of the journal series of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, North Carolina State University.