Few consumers realize how many data bytes go into what they bite. Across laboratories worldwide, technicians process hundreds of thousands of samples—from raw ingredients to the finished products shipped to consumers. The data generated is vital to everything from quality control to traceability.
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Explore This IssueAugust/September 2015
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With so much riding on the accuracy and timeliness of data, few in the industry pause to consider data defensibility. But it’s as important in food labs as it is in any industry: Scientists stand behind results and the steps taken to generate them. But the requirement that data be defensible shouldn’t conflict with constant demands for rapid throughput, efficiency, and greater productivity.
For many in the food industry, a proven pathway to ensure that data is reliable and defensible is to follow guidelines outlined by industry groups or by global standards organizations like ISO. In particular ISO 17025 sets out standards for the management of testing and calibration laboratories, and outlines guidance for the proper calibration of lab equipment and instruments, maintenance schedules, user training, etc. Adherence to a globally accepted set of standards like ISO is a first step for many labs in pursuit of defensible data. But while this standard has been in place for more than 15 years, compliance hasn’t always been easy: Setting up to comply with the standard, especially in a lab that still relies on paper records, is challenging.
The Importance of Data Management
Depending on the food produced, a single laboratory may be responsible for hundreds of tests each week. And no test is just a test; it’s the sum of many parts, from the information about where the sample originated to the maintenance records of the instrument used to conduct the test and the technician’s training history. The data accompanying a single test is significant, and all of it is equally important in a paradigm of defensibility.
Historically, defending data has been onerous. In the case of a disputed result, lab employees would painstakingly collect and aggregate data from multiple sources, including handwritten notes from fellow technicians. It’s not uncommon for technicians to spend a quarter of their productive time simply collecting data to defend a result. Sure, the effort is vital given that public health could be at risk, but these are still hours that could be better spent on activities that are tied to top-line business growth, not time-consuming manual activities, even for something as important as quality assurance or regulatory compliance. Defending data is hard, but it’s also not optional.
Like nearly every industry, the food industry is being transformed by technology. And nowhere is this truer than in the lab and with software. In the age of “big data,” comprehensive data management software is a big deal, and it is one reason that labs are finding it’s easier and less time-consuming to defend their data. Defending may not be as hard after all.
Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) have been around in food safety and quality labs for years. And while the legacy of LIMS may be basic sample management and data reporting, today the capabilities are much more far-reaching across an enterprise: The lab is still where the LIMS sits, but it integrates with data in material requirements planning, enterprise resource planning, and other enterprise systems in ways that enable unprecedented visibility and, most important here, rapid, comprehensive and highly efficient defensibility.
Food manufacturers are concerned with physical, biological, and chemical contaminants. In the case of chemical contaminants, many analytical techniques exist to quantify known chemical contaminants in complex food matrices at very low levels, as is often required by regulation. More advanced instruments and techniques can also be used to identify unexpected chemical contaminants such as advanced agrochemicals, pesticides, and veterinary drugs.