Analytical laboratories in the food industry: in-house or third-party? (Or both?)
There is a temptation - and a risk - to externalizing internal activities like laboratory diagnostics. Is an internal lab always necessary? Is an external lab always better? The answer lies somewhere in between.
Monitoring processes for product composition, for process control and variability, or to detect potential adulterants requires both analytical capability and adaptable capacity. Food industry testing volume has been increasing year after year, and the trend is not expected to change soon (Ferguson 2021). Recent foodborne accidents and recalls could have been avoided with better surveillance and appropriate testing. In Europe, the ongoing fipronil and ethylene oxide issues have highlighted the importance of state-of-the-art analytical processes for good decision making.
Composition or contamination - allergen, chemical, physical, or microbiological
There are many ways to classify and order a testing scheme at a factory level, but these usually fall into two major separate domains: composition or contamination.
In the production process testing scheme, composition and process verification is the most critical step from a business perspective because this is where product disposition decisions that lead to financial gains or losses will be made. For example, at a milk factory, analysing milk composition upon reception with FTIR (Fourier Transformation Infrared) is one of the major analyses that must be performed continuously to ensure the milk may be used throughout processing (and to ensure the producer can be paid). Due to the need for immediate results (i.e. before milk is processed any further), such testing is continuously performed in-house. However, some testing at pre-defined intervals may be externalized to an approved reference laboratory to ensure in-house results are accepted both by the producer and the manufacturer. The reception and evaluation of raw materials for many food production sectors follow the same monitoring scheme. In general, where immediate results are required to make decisions about production conditions, ingredients, or products, such testing is conducted in-house, often by on-line or in-line measurements.
Contamination monitoring, unfortunately, is still necessary to ensure proper implementation of control measures. In the early 1990s, it was expected that the hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) approach would focus more on critical limit monitoring and reduce the number of testing schemes, but the rise of national and regional regulations along with increased border controls, inspections, and quarantine services has generated a huge volume of analytical tests. While testing volume continues to increase every year, laboratory capacity and, indirectly, analytical capacity do not. Before considering whether the method is relevant (validated) and properly implemented (verified), it is necessary to consider which method is required under the various compliance criteria. When testing for pathogens of concern like Salmonella spp., for example, the US FDA method is not the same as the method in Europe or the method in China. The accreditation schemes may differ as well. As such, for international market players, it is often neither feasible nor cost effective to perform all testing internally, at least
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