Up until about 30 years ago, all food safety analysis was carried out at food manufacturing plants. That began to change when scientists and entrepreneurs realized there was an opportunity to establish food contract laboratories to help food plants meet increasingly rigorous testing and analysis requirements. Over time, companies that began as single-location facilities have grown into larger regional, national, and even international networks.
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A report published in March 2014 on the market for food contract labs by Strategic Consulting Inc. (SCI) showed that use of contract labs is increasing in all geographic regions. Revenues for food contract test labs were estimated to have grown from $1.95 billion in 2008 to $3.05 billion in 2013, a compound annual rate of 9.4 percent.
Services offered by contract test labs include microbiology testing for food pathogens, chemistry testing for nutritional analysis, and testing for contaminants like pesticides and toxins. Customers generally get the best results if they use a laboratory specializing in the type of test they are looking for. Lynn Loudermilk, lab director for NP Analytical Laboratories, says NPAL’s microbiological service offers a full range of spoilage and pathogen testing, as well as experience in microbial shelf-life and challenge testing. The chemistry group offers testing for macro and micronutrients, including minerals, vitamins, and amino acids to support nutrition in animal health and human food. In keeping with its focus on customer partnership, Loudermilk says NPAL avoids branching out into areas outside its core expertise and works with customers to find labs that perform those services.
Certification and accreditation requirements have driven increased use of contract labs, according to Tom Weschler, president of SCI, particularly in North America. “Meeting requirements is time consuming and cost consuming. As a result, manufacturers are finding it’s easier to send samples outside,” he says.
Weschler notes contract labs are growing at a rate faster than overall safety testing, indicating contract labs are taking overall market share.
SCI found that midsized food plants tend to make the most use of food contract labs. “It’s more difficult for them to afford the overhead, the expense, and the documentation required to run their food plant lab. If you’re a larger food plant, you have critical mass,” says Weschler. A contract laboratory can also offer the benefit of credibility to testing that, if done in-house, might have the appearance of being biased.
Shaffer is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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