A wave of technological innovation has made laboratory testing faster, easier, and more valuable in recent times.
As meat processors work to make their operations more cost-effective, faster, and more productive, quality-assurance and laboratory technicians strive to do the same for the testing arena.
Laboratory work, whether done in-house or outsourced to a firm that specializes in the field, has grown increasingly more important over the years as processors have become more and more aware of the dangers and consequences that contamination cause.
There is no consensus among experts in the field as to whether it is better to keeping testing in-house or outsource the operation, as there are positives and negatives to both sides.
Kurt Westmoreland, division vice president for Silliker, Inc., believes there is value for processors to outsource its testing operations, including microbiological.
“Not only do you get the benefit of having the test conducted by people who are trained to do the work on a routine basis, clients get the benefit of a third-party voice should there be a debate on test results with a supplier or client,” Westmoreland explains. “Also, many independent labs have the resources available to stay current on the most up-to-date methods to ensure testing is being done by approved and appropriate methods. With the way the industry changes, as well as technologies, it is impossible for a typical in house lab to monitor this part of the business.
“While meat and poultry companies have core competencies in manufacturing to ensure quality products, we believe laboratories should have core competencies in testing to produce accurate and reliable data.”
Kevin Habas, sales and marketing operations manager for 3M Microbiology Products, agrees, saying that every company must take it upon themselves to figure out if they have the time, ability, and resources to do testing in-house.
“For most food processors, routine microbiology testing can be cost-effectively conducted in-house very easily and with confidence, as long as there is a trained microbiology technician available,” Habas says. “If testing volumes are low, and if there is not a trained microbiology technician, the outsourcing option to a reference or contract lab is very appealing.”
Processors must consider several factors before decided if in-house testing works for them, including the turnaround time to results, the cost of getting the results including labor if kept in-house, and the risk management factors. In fact, Habas suggests, risk can rise when a food processor conducts pathogen testing in-house.
“A trained technician is still required, but additional consideration needs to be given to the lab layout, the contamination possibility if enrichments are required for the test method, specific individual training, and time to achieve the test result if it is used for product release,” he adds.
Westmoreland suggests that if processors outsource their testing operations, they require several things from the lab they use.
“The minimal standard [that] producers and processors should require when considering an independent lab is accreditation through ISO 17025,” he explains. “Likewise, it is important that laboratories exhibit participation in a variety of check sample programs, both internally and externally, to verify the accuracy of their data. If these minimal standards are not met, questions should be asked specifically regarding how data accuracy and reliability are verified. Labs should be willing to share this data upon request.”
Today, food quality labs are getting better equipped to service the industry in even faster, more efficient ways. Solutions that are more cost-effective, feature results that are easy to interpret, provide results more quickly, and provide increased sensitivity and sometimes increased specificity are what lab operators pine for, says Habas. He adds that technologies that eliminate human error by automating mundane manipulations add value and are in demand by processors.
“The increasing use of computers in food processors’ quality-assurance labs is definitely a technology trend that is here to stay,” Habas relays. “Harnessing the power of a computer in the lab is critical to increasing the effectiveness of the technicians by improving their efficiency. … They effectively reduce technician labor spent conducting mundane or routine tasks and allow them to focus on and complete more value-added tasks and analysis.”
Processors then benefit because lab technicians engage in more product tests, increased environmental sampling, increased weights and measures monitoring and taking time to chart and analyze the data collected.
Habas points out that 3M Petrifilm Plates have demonstrated the ability to meet these needs, showing a reduction of approximately 50 percent in technician time spent conducting microbiological testing, from sample collection to waste autoclaving. The plates also come sample-ready, eliminating much of the variability from technician to technician and plant to plant.
The 3M Petrifilm Plate Reader (PPR) is aligned with processors’ needs as well, Habas says. It counts and record 3M Petrifilm Aerobic Count Plates, 3M Petrifilm Coliform Count Plates, and 3M Petrifilm E. Coli Count Plates in four seconds.
“The PPR eliminates the tedious task of counting colonies and writing the results of each test into a lab log book,” Habas says.
Westmoreland explains that Silliker has tapped into the computer revolution in laboratory testing, but in a different way.
“It is becoming essential for laboratories to be able to offer clients data management capabilities online,” he says. “This is ideally done by offering online access to data through an automated Laboratory Information System (LIMS).”
Westmoreland explains that the company’s Silliker-eSTAR.com service allows clients to trend and track data in a useful, efficient manner, enabling them to make quick and informed decisions regarding sanitation processes and product disposition.
“Data management capabilities are different in that it is no longer good enough to just e-mail results,” he explains. “Clients need the capability to directly access their data, download the data and make decisions on the data.”
Silliker also offers online food-safety educational training for managers, supervisors, and line workers.
“With increased client and regulatory requirements, it is increasingly important for our clients to document their food safety training activities and one of the best ways to reach many employees without disrupting operations is to be able to have them take on line courses at times convenient to them and the manufacturer,” Westmoreland continues.
Habas believes that continued improvements in technology will make testing faster, easier to complete, and more thorough than ever before. As government regulators continue to keep a watchful eye on food safety, Habas suggests that suppliers continually work on justifying costs of new products and technologies they introduce. He also predicts that the industry will continue to utilize and adapt technologies from the health-care industry to the food industry.
For a company like Silliker that offers testing services, the future is simple: They must continue to stay atop the trends and provide the safest, highest-quality, and best-valued service to processors who want to focus on their core competency and leave the testing to a qualified lab.
“Bottom line, our clients expect us to be experts in the field of food safety and do what it takes to provide the data they need, when they need it (as much as we can based on test limitation), and in a form they can use to make food safety decisions.” NP