Remember “The Jetsons?” The wildly popular animated series rocketed onto the primetime television scene on September 23, 1962. Set mainly in sky-high Orbit City, the captivating show featured George Jetson, his boy Elroy, daughter Judy, and Jane, his wife, living the life of an average family in the year 2062. Residing in Skypad Apartments and employing a lovable maid named Rosie the Robot, the Jetsons introduced impressionable Earthlings to a galaxy of futuristic flying space cars, instant transport tubes, and creatively brilliant time-saving gadgets and gizmos.
In his position with Spacely Space Sprockets, George worked just three hours a day, three days a week, pressing a single computer button. Similar advances will be seen in the food lab of the future, which will mirror George’s workplace dynamically by being more efficient, reliable, and automated, says Purnendu Vasavada, PhD, an extension food safety and microbiology specialist with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF). The lab will also be smaller.
“Space is increasingly a premium in processing plants,” Dr. Vasavada points out, with no pun intended. “So the lab of the future will be smaller to optimize space savings. An instrument or a system that formerly occupied a 10’ x 6’ table will now need a 4’ x 2’ counter and will be driven by a laptop computer. However, if you test for specific pathogens, you will need to have a dedicated facility with a specialized air handling system to minimize the risk of cross contamination.”
Even if the lab is small and automation is at a competitive level, industry won’t see a lab without human intervention anytime soon. “There will, however, be hybrid, automated, or semi-automated systems that one technician can operate to efficiently conduct various analyses,” Dr. Vasavada says.
With a new generation of user-friendly test kits and instruments on the horizon, companies will be able to conduct in-house testing rather than sending samples to outside contract labs for analysis. “That will save time and money and minimize complications in data handling and interpretation,” adds Dr. Vasavada, who is also a member of Food Quality magazine’s editorial advisory panel.
To use in-house testing successfully, a company must invest in people and facilities, he continues. “In terms of human resources, the future food lab will need multitasking, not multiple employees,” he says. “How many samples are run and how sophisticated the technology is will determine the level of education and credentials needed by personnel handling testing. And no one employee will come in to a company with all the skills needed. It will be necessary for industry to constantly upgrade training and budget for retraining,” he says.
“While food labs traditionally specialized in such tasks as moisture and protein analysis, the food lab of the future will deal with chemical and microbiological testing,” Dr. Vasavada predicts. “Detection, isolation, and enumeration of microorganisms usually require one or more enrichment steps, thereby delaying time to results. That’s a hurdle we have to overcome. The lab of the future will have to be relatively fast-paced and efficient, just like George Jetson’s workplace.”
More Rapid Microbio
To that end, the lab of the future will require continued improvements by rapid microbiology diagnostic companies, says Thomas Weschler, MBA, president of Strategic Consulting, Inc. (SCI; Woodstock, Vt.). In 2008, only 41.5% of microbiology tests utilized rapid methods, according to Food Micro—2008 to 2013, a market research study from SCI.
“The percentage of rapid tests should increase dramatically in the coming years, as the diagnostic companies provide the performance improvements expected,” Weschler says. “With the resulting improvements in time to results, the food processing companies will increase their usage of rapid micro methods, driven by significant economic benefits and the ability to practice proactive and risk prevention food safety programs. By 2015, they should finally be able to do what many of them want to do today: that is, screen incoming raw materials and in-process parameters with near real-time microbiology information utilizing these newer methods.”