Paperless Microbiology Laboratory

Westward Laboratories is a microbiology laboratory based in the U.K. that conducts daily routine microbiological testing on finished products, regular pathogen tests for evidence of Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli, and other food poisoning organisms, as well as environmental monitoring. Each month the lab handles over 44,000 tests, almost all are microbiological analyses, such as total viable count, yeast and mold, coliforms, Enterobacteriaceae, etc. Around 200,000 samples are processed each year, with almost half a million tests performed. The lab complies with the current United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) requirements and helps to ensure food manufacturers are implementing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). By adopting a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) as its backbone and using automated microbiology equipment, Westward Laboratories has developed almost production line techniques to handle the sample throughput. With the LIMS managing the results and report formats for different customers, and the utilization of a specially developed web reporting system, reports and invoices can be accessed online or sent electronically to customers to minimize the use of paper.

Background

Westward Laboratories was established in 1992 following the Food Safety Act of 1990 which required food manufacturers to monitor their processes, practices, and finished products. Although part of the Samworth Brothers group, Westward Labs is an independent food testing facility and has to compete for business from other group members and from external companies. Westward Labs holds the ISO17025 standard and is accredited by UKAS and leading supermarket outlets such as Marks & Spencer and Tesco. Over the years, increasing sample throughput has led to the need for innovation and the use of automation and mechanization technology to keep up with demand.

Lab Workflow

All received samples are registered, tests are assigned, labels are produced for each test suite, and then the samples are placed in a large fridge prior to entering the lab. Samples are then collected by lab staff and prepared prior to being plated. Samples are weighed out and then placed in a holding fridge prior to dilution and plating. Workflow in the lab is very conventional with samples moving through from registration to being put in the incubator as quickly as possible. After incubation, samples are counted, the results recorded, reports prepared and issued, and invoices prepared. Most of the samples received are processed during the same day.

Basic laboratory workflow with automation interaction

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Figure 1.

Automating the Process

One of the key factors in the laboratory workflow process is the need to track and trace the samples and associated results to fully comply with the regulatory requirements. To help, Westward Laboratories uses the Matrix LIMS from Autoscribe Ltd., which can be readily tailored to the needs of individual laboratories and provide comprehensive audit trails, version control, and sample tracking functionality. The “OneTime configuration tools” within Matrix allow the system to be configured without the use of custom programming or esoteric basic scripting tools. A configuration wizard allows free choice of screens, workflows and menu designs, customer specific tables/modules, multiple screens for the same function (e.g. registration screens optimized for each sample category), and multiple sample numbering systems. These tools also allow the system to be further configured or reconfigured to keep it in step with any changes to the laboratory workflow or business practices. All samples are booked into the Matrix LIMS on arrival at the laboratory, and once registered, barcode labels are generated, one for each test group that they will undergo. The labels are configurable and could include a barcode, a unique human readable sample code, sample weight, sample description, and a list of the tests required. Registration screens have been created for individual sample types. For example, the registration screen for swabs differs from the general sample registration screen.

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