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.