As food manufacturers and retailers grapple with an ever-growing list of food safety and quality compliance demands, they are looking for ways to better utilize their contract laboratories to help manage these additional compliance requirements.
Explore this issueApril/May 2011
While the traditional role of contract laboratories in the food industry has been to assist companies in providing routine and non-routine food testing services that could not otherwise be done in-house, core competency is not the only issue that drives companies to outsource.
Another issue is cost effectiveness. For example, a company may only use an expensive piece of test equipment once a month, while contract laboratories, which use this equipment every day, are more knowledgeable about the equipment and can use it more efficiently.
Another reason a company might outsource a product is to have an independent third party do the testing. An unbiased party conducting product testing can help ensure that the product going to market is reliable and safe.
Capacity is another issue that drives companies to outsource. Although many companies would like testing and related services to go through their in-house facilities, they may not have the head count to do so. It is often more cost effective to outsource the services to a contract laboratory instead of hiring additional staff.
In some cases, required testing services involve handling dangerous materials such as microbiological pathogens, hazardous chemicals, and radioactive substances—materials an organization does not want to have in its production facilities. The company may want to avoid any chance of product cross contamination and may also want to steer clear of the employee safety and disposal issues associated with using these materials at their facilities.
The initial decision to use a contract laboratory is often the result of a crisis situation or tight project deadline. Companies don’t generally think about the range of services beyond these immediate needs. As the role of the contract laboratory continues to evolve in the food industry, companies should consider what role a contract laboratory and its experts could play in improving the company’s overall food safety and quality management system and in helping it run more efficiently. This will allow better allocation of limited resources and better preparation in the event of a food safety crisis.
The food industry is under continuous pressure to ramp up food safety and quality management systems in difficult economic times. Challenges include:
- Regulators: Federal and local regulatory agencies are applying more stringent oversight to all sectors of the food supply chain. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, aims to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply by shifting the focus of federal regulators from response to prevention of contamination. Within this legislation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was charged with developing systems of accreditation for laboratory testing and auditing service providers with a background goal of expanding capacity and enabling additional resources from accredited firms to support the requirements of the legislation.
- Consumers: Increasing consumer sophistication about food composition, nutritional content, and safety issues means that the industry cannot afford to compromise on product quality, process controls, or cleanliness of facilities. In recent years, food safety and food quality problems have become more frequent in most countries. Problems such as melamine adulteration in foods and animal feed, Salmonella contamination, and mycotoxins and dioxins in animal feed and animal products have led to consumer mistrust of foods in general, putting political attention on increasing food safety.
- Competition: Today’s consumers face a growing array of choices vying for their limited budgets. Private label brands are becoming more common, not only as an accepted alternative but often as one preferred to national brands. One bad experience may be the last chance an organization has for a share of a consumer’s business.
- Supply Chain: With a diverse and complex supply chain, it can be a challenge to ensure consistency of product quality. Non-conforming products from suppliers can result in substantial costs in the food industry. In response to a number of food safety scares, a group of international retailers created the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) in May 2000. GFSI, now representing more than 70% of food retail revenue worldwide, is committed to benchmarking food safety management schemes in order to enhance food safety and restore consumer confidence. Equally importantly, GFSI promotes common acceptance of GFSI-recognized standards by retailers worldwide in order to improve the cost efficiency of food safety audits for food suppliers.
Many major retailers now require GFSI-compliant auditing schemes of their suppliers. With the focus on prevention, and the recognition that effective food safety and quality management systems are essential for success, numerous auditing schemes against benchmarking standards like those under GFSI continue to be developed and improved within the food industry.