The story about contract lab services used to read: “Once upon a time, contract laboratories were places where tests were run and results were generated. The end.”
Today, the story is quite different. While a food manufacturer’s goal is to provide quality products that meet the needs and expectations of consumers, the stakes are at an all-time high to ensure quality and safety. To aid in this goal, contract labs can play an integral part.
The specific roles for laboratories have changed and contract labs are now considered as collaborators in the manufacturer’s food safety system. Contract labs play a multitude of roles in the collaboration of quality and safe food production by serving as a multi-faceted verification tools and technical resources.
The scope of how integrated the lab becomes in the manufacturing process will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but the following are some areas to explore as tangible benefits that can be provided.
Multi-Faceted Verification Tool
Quality and safety testing is a primary function when considering contract lab services that assist in food manufacture. Ongoing testing of finished products, equipment, plant infrastructure, and raw materials all embody a robust monitoring process to verify that a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), and prerequisite programs are functioning as designed. Tasks can include:
- Testing incoming materials against a purchase specification,
- Periodic testing of materials against baseline or historical values,
- In-process tests to ensure the process is operating within specification,
- Finished product tests against internal or external product specifications,
- Environmental testing to verify sanitation, traffic control, and GMPs are working as intended,
- Supplier/co-manufacturer qualification testing,
- New product verification,
- Process start-up,
- Change-over practices, and
- New equipment validation.
For many manufacturers, it is not practical or feasible to do all verification testing in-house. A contract lab can provide the manufacturer increased testing capability and capacity to verify that the quality and safety programs are on track. Additionally, the contract lab has the capacity to handle the larger than normal testing volumes required by these activities. Also of importance, a contract lab provides the additional benefit of providing test results viewed as being “unbiased.”
A contract lab can help ensure food quality and safety by providing additional technical resources to food manufacturers. These resources may come in the form of additional methods, specialized equipment, or technical knowledge. Many manufacturers either do not have an internal lab or their internal labs have limitations on their testing capabilities. For example, only one method is available to test for a specific organism or no methods are available to test for a complex group of organisms that affect quality, as may be the case with lactic acid bacteria.
Utilizing the best tools helps drive ongoing quality and safety improvements. A contract lab can provide access to methods unavailable in an internal lab due to equipment costs, lack of scientific expertise, time constraints, or high reagent costs because of decreased volume purchasing power. Access to specialized equipment increases access to additional method options. As test methods become more specialized and sensitive, entering into new test methodology can become cost prohibitive, and upkeep costs further add to the barrier to new technology. However, the advantages are that new methods may provide increased sensitivity or specificity, which may be critical in lot disposition determinations.
Contract labs may also conduct testing that provides further information such as when routine tests results are inconclusive, presumptive, out of spec, or point to other potential concerns. This additional level of information can provide insight and direction into the root cause investigation of potential issues. Similarly, these methods may aid in verifying the effectiveness of corrective/preventative actions, when taken. Consider a Salmonella assay: To aid with trending or investigations, serological information is an important tool that enables a producer to know if a harborage site is present, if contamination was removed during sanitation, or if cross-contamination is occurring from one area of the plant to another.