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Food Labs Integral to Changing World of Food Safety

The work of its laboratories has long been ubiquitous in the world of food safety. Public or private, their work is usually in the background, unseen but almost always unchallenged.

Those days, however, may be changing. The landmark Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) mentions food laboratories 57 times and says something about laboratory tests 29 times. And, there is an entire section on lab standards.

Over the summer, several of the food-safety laboratories noticed how often their work was coming up in the FSMA, so they decided what the private sector often decides to do when confronted with government complexities — they formed a new association.

The Food Laboratory Alliance was born “to promote collectively food safety and the quality of food laboratory testing.” Formed in July and expanded in September, the Food Laboratory Alliance now includes Eurofins Scientific, Cherney Microbiological Services, Ltd., the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation, American Proficiency Institute, Microbiologics and Roka Bioscience.

Very quickly, the coalition of organizations has come to represent hundreds of food laboratories across the country providing many of the products and services demanded daily by the food industry.

And the food lab executives say they are not just dealing with more government complexity. They say their relationships with their food-industry customers are also demanding more.

“We understand how devastating product recalls are to both the manufacturer and to the industry as a whole,” says Debra Cherney, president and director at Cherney Microbiological Services, Ltd. “Such events erode consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply.”

Cherney said the new group wants to “focus together on key components like the quality of food laboratory testing to avoid potential problems.”

The growing food lab association says its mission is to promote food safety and quality of food laboratory testing, educate its members on regulatory and legislative issues pertaining to food labs, and advocate for more testing to ensure a safe food supply.

Food laboratories already are involved in a dizzying array of accreditations and certifications. The top tier among those are the International Standard Organization (ISO) awards earned in the U.S. through the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA).

Obtaining its ISO 17025 accreditation was enough to put Exact Scientific in Bellingham, WA, on the front page of the local newspaper for its skill in testing food for E. coli and Staphylococcus. Locally owned, Exact began seven years ago doing tests for local berry growers and steadily expanded until becoming one of only a handful of ISO 17025 certified labs in the Evergreen State.

Exact’s growth is a sign of increased food-industry demand for third-party (rather than in-house) labs to lessen concerns about conflicts of interest and for ISO certifications for assurance on testing procedures.

“We are seeing more companies including CFA (Chick-fil-A)  look to accredited food labs for verification of our specifications including food safety requirements (a good thing),” says Dr. Hal King, who heads food and product safety at Chick-fil-A. “At CFA, we use this (food labs) as part of a surveillance system from within various parts of the supply chain to help us catch product defects before they get to the restaurant.”

There’s debate within the food industry about how much that demand is changing. Advantage Business Media’s Food Manufacturing publication recently surveyed food processors about their use of food laboratories. They found 32.5 percent use both in-house and outside labs; 28.9 percent use only in-house testing, and 24.1 percent send samples only to outside labs. And 14.5 percent said they don’t require testing.

The Food Manufacturing survey also found most tests are for quality (70.6 percent) and consistency (57.7 percent), with food-safety tests for pathogens coming in third at 56.5 percent. Tests for accuracy in packaging claims and allergens were reported, respectively, by 29.4 and 23.5 percent of those surveyed.

Among the responding food processors, Food Manufacturing found 78.2 percent hold food in batches until clean lab reports are returned. Among lab-related difficulties facing the food industry, the processors expressed concerns about the length of time it takes for results (25 percent); changing regulations (23.8 percent), difficulty finding qualified staff (18.5 percent); problems with buy-in from management (10 percent), test accuracy (10 percent) and deciding what to test for (6.3 percent) and other concerns (6.3 percent.)

Finally, the survey found 93.8 percent of food processors have confidence in their own food-safety testing procedures.

© Food Safety News
  • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

    Any service laboratory is a business. As such, its receipts must cover its operating expenses and leave a little overage that may be accounted for as profit. If a food laboratory is to be ” . . . involved in a dizzying array of accreditations and certifications,” it should come as no surprise to that laboratory’s customers that accreditation and certification acquisition and maintenance costs money and therefore the carrying costs of that laboratory will tend to be higher than any costs associated with some of their “Low Bid Sid” competitors lacking those same accreditations and certifications. Pricing cannot help but vary accordingly. None of the foregoing means that a laboratory lacking accreditations and certifications cannot perform excellent work. However, it does mean that food manufacturers need to take responsibility for telling the analytic laboratory exactly what they want. There are usually many different methods with which to run a given test procedure. Food manufacturers need to know which of the many methodological alternatives they prefer (and why) for their specific samples and purposes. They need to understand the implications of different limits of detection (LOD) upon the results they receive. They need to know about and ask for the use of specific standards and QC procedures. They need to know how and when to slip their own QC samples into the product stream sent to the laboratory being used. Food manufacturers need to understand that price per test should not be their main criterion in choosing a lab and that they need to participate actively in the testing process. They also need to know how to argue effectively and on a technical level with an analytical laboratory about results they may feel are questionable. Unfortunately, many food manufacturers simply rely upon the free consulting offered by the analytical laboratory’s salesperson. They then get what they pay for.

  • Food Safety Illuminati

    Why is the focus in the U.S. microbiological testing and in Europe/the rest of the world it is pesticide residue testing?

    Why is there no mention of pesticide residue testing in this article and barely any thing mentioned about it in FSMA?

    Why is this critical food safety issue being ignored in the U.S.?????????

    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!!

    Thank you to those responsible companies and growers out there who go the extra mile to test for pesticides even when it is not required by regulations, requested by customers or necessary for your audits/certifications!!

    Knowledge is power and the more you know about your product the less risk you will face and more money you will make!

  • KennethKendrick

    This is one I wrote about before and continue to worry about. I fear it is more paperwork without a real onsite inspection of the actual processes that staff are imementing. Accuracy only being of 10% concern is troubling. Like I had said before, as part of the process, accreditation agency sends 4 samples and having the lab find the positive one did not work, as all the labs for the company knew which sample number should be positive as it was the same sample # for all labs. ( example sample 3 of 4 was the positive sample for every lab in the company) So one lab called the others , if their results did not match , they would retest until they got it right. Did not mean their process was accurate.

  • Michael Ray

    Of course industry wants to minimize liabilities. They don’t want to poison people so they don’t get sued. Self-policing is good business. Unfortunately, not everyone in the food industry is necessarily good at it. Private industry to support the betterment of practices is great. But we must always assure that consumers are represented in the marketplace beyond their purchasing power (or reactive withdrawal from a company/product that proves harmful). That’s why we need public labs and oversight of the food chain. If industry wants to do it better, great. But history proves over and over again that there will be those in the industry who will act in bad faith, from passing melamine as milk solids to chicken-by-product-meal as “meat”, and so forth. Lobby, lobby all you want, but I’ll take my private initiatives with a healthy dose of public vigilance, thanks.

    • Lorin Chane Partain

      The regulatory agencies we have now, as vast as they are, have allowed far more dangerous practices then mere low grade meal as meat. Sorry but the regulators only wind up being the very people in industry, and then they go and rubber stamp whatever these companies want. Nope, the only real accountability lies with the consumer.

      • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

        I agree with you. The revolving door between the regulatory agencies and the regulated industries is altogether too much in evidence for comfort. Some limits should be put in place to retain regulatory credibility.

      • Michael Ray

        Oh, I wasn’t discarding the individual consumer’s responsibility to make informed decisions. But without standards enforced in some (albeit inefficient and often corrupted) fashion, there is a far greater opportunity for scalawags in industry to obscure truth. The consumer cannot make informed decisions without knowledge, and most industry devotes vast fortunes and armies of attorneys disguised as entertainers (advertising/PR) in order to obscure truths and promote misinformation in order to extract capital from the uninformed. It takes everyone: public education, private industry, and collective standards.

    • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

      Public vigilance is indeed necessary. The problem is one of funding. For example, A couple of years or so ago, I ran a food safety laboratory. Because I was able to do so, I bought packages of fresh celery from six different supermarkets in town and tested each for the presence of Listeria. I was quite surprised to find that two samples out of the six tested were presumptively positive. I felt a moral obligation to inform both the health authorities and the management of the stores involved. The results of that exercise were even more surprising than the analytic results. One store manager listened to what I had to say and then told me that food safety was ” . . . corporate’s problem.” Her problem, as she saw it, was merely to sell the stuff that came in off the trucks. My experience with the local Health Department was equally dismal. They thanked me for the information, then told me that they were far too underfunded to undertake their own investigation, even when provided with presumptive evidence! Since that time, even cities as large as Detroit have jettisoned their own Health Department as a cost saving measure. Republicans have continually sought to defund FSMA as a “service” to industry. Consider that Salmonella may be found in meat but is not considered an adulterant by USDA (even though FDA considers it such). The problem is that laboratory tests are relatively expensive and require a good deal of foreknowledge on the part of the person submitting the sample. That is why my current company (www.foodsafetyanalysis.com) will (for the analysis of certain heavy metals in food) aggregate orders from several consumers until the cost per person is in the single-digit dollars then submit a sample for testing and respond (to each participant) with results performed on a professional level but explained in layman’s terms.

      • Michael Ray

        Indeed, funding is an issue as well as corporate/consumer complacency. But without representation in the food industry from both public and private labs, there is no check/balance of health/safety claims by for-profit corporations. USDA rules, while largely a regurgitation of industry “standards” are still necessary as a means of publicly accessible (well, the language is arcane, but still publicly transparent) common practice and standards. Of course, private initiatives, such as your lab, will usually be more efficient and nimble than governmental ones, but without public/common standards & labs, there can be no assurance that what one private entity claims is necessarily true. Governmental operations’ purpose is public service, albeit fallible and heavily influenced by private industry, while private industry’s purpose is to profit, despite any claims of altruism.

        • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

          As I have mentioned elsewhere, the current revolving door between regulatory agencies and the regulated industries makes something of a joke out of the notion that the purpose of governmental operations is public service. I wish it were otherwise. Rules that are “arcane” would appear to be designed to be “transparent” at the same time as they are also designed to be inaccessible to a lay public. For example, I think the meat industry has understood (via plant closings) the lessons of Lean, Finely-Textured Beef (LFTB). Is it beef? Of course it is. Is it safe? Of course it is. Does the public want it? NO!! Private industry has no alternative but to respect the consumer’s power of purse. Consumers should use their power intelligently. For that, they need information.

          • Michael Ray

            Indeed, consumers need to have information. I’m in agreement that regulatory/regulated “incest” produces mutant babies, i.e. “Beef” or “Chicken by-product-meal”, “Natural” as allowed by the USDA. It’s farcical,at best. Labeling, for me, about the source and processing of the products, is paramount. Most consumers have no idea that over 80% of all poultry is injected with solutions. And that the majority of whole-muscle pork is lacerated and/or tumble injected with solutions. And that this process makes the product less safe. It goes on and on, but to the point of having public and private labs I’m firmly in the camp that both are necessary to maintain a modicum of honest information for the consumer.