All in a Day’s Work: Contract Labs Handle Problems Your In-house Lab Can’t

What is this unknown material? What’s causing the off flavor in our product? Can you find the source of this off odor? Does my product contain pesticides or allergens? When such questions arise and unfamiliar problems occur, food and beverage manufacturers may need outside help to find reliable answers. For problems that can’t be solved in house, contract laboratories are often the answer.

There are many reasons a company might need to outsource food chemistry testing. A manufacturer may not have the analytical capabilities, such as specialized instrumentation, within its in-house laboratory. Kerri LeVanseler, PhD, is technical manager of the chemistry laboratory at NSF International (Ann Arbor, Mich.), an independent nonprofit organization committed to protecting and improving public health. She says companies often outsource analytical services to specialized laboratories to take advantage of their higher volume and expertise.

“If another lab can perform the test accurately and more cost effectively, it makes sense to outsource,” says Dr. LeVanseler. Additionally, even extensive in-house laboratories face capacity issues; overflow or emergency work may need to be performed elsewhere. In some instances, a company may need an outside lab to provide independent testing as a third-party provider.

Routine and Non-Routine Testing

One of the most important questions for a company to ask is if the quality issue requires routine or non-routine testing. Routine analytical testing methods are provided by numerous facilities, many of which are specialists in their particular method or matrix. This means that a higher level of experience and knowledge is available in those areas. Rather than specializing in one technique, a non-routine laboratory has experience solving obscure problems using a variety of investigative analytical methods.

Routine food chemistry tests can range from nutritional analysis and genetically modified organism testing to testing for pesticides, mycotoxins, and acrylamide. Allergen testing is becoming more common and can be a difficult field. “In some areas our scientific techniques are not on par with people’s sensitivity,” says Dr. LeVanseler. For example, she adds, current tests for the presence of corn may not screen the substance for the level at which an allergic person would react.

A non-routine project for one laboratory may actually be routine for another contract facility. “Silliker Laboratories is a big network of international laboratories. For the most part we are a routine high-volume laboratory,” says Sneh Bhandari, PhD, technical director of chemistry at Silliker’s Illinois facility (Homewood, Ill.). “Non-routine tests are also performed if they have the potential to become high volume.”

Jerry King, PhD, of Midwest Laboratories, Inc. (Omaha, Neb.) agrees. “If we only run a certain analysis very infrequently, we cannot make money. The investment in time, instruments, standards, validation, etcetera, needs to be paid off in repeat analyses. If we only get a single sample for a new or unknown method, it is not worth setting up to run the method.”

What should a company do when it doesn’t know what methods of testing are needed? What if the problem cannot be solved using the usual approaches? Chemir Analytical Services (Maryland Heights, Mo.) has been solving difficult problems for almost 50 years. Some examples of non-routine issues Chemir has investigated include:

  • unexpected odors;
  • unknown black specks or other contaminants;
  • off tastes for no apparent reasons; and
  • legal challenges.

If a company has a non-routine problem, the first question it should ask a contract analytical laboratory is if the lab has ever tackled this sort of project before. “Experienced scientists understand the pitfalls of solving unusual or strange problems with analytical chemistry,” says Carolyn J. Otten, PhD, director of specialized services at Chemir Analytical Services. Unlike in Hollywood’s CSI laboratory, the answers are not always apparent.

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