This article originally ran in the May 2013 issue of Food Manufacturing.
The Food Safety Update section of Food Manufacturing is designed to offer our readers insight into the state of food safety concerns across the industry. We received hundreds of responses to this month’s survey on laboratory testing.
Usually, when we talk about food safety, we’re talking prevention. How do we keep food from being contaminated? What can we do to ensure sanitary processing techniques? But food safety is often reactive. If food is contaminated, how do we keep it out of the hands (and mouths) of consumers? What is the quickest method of detection?
Prevention is all about planning, but reacting to a contamination requires testing.
When we asked food processors if and how their facilities use laboratory testing to ensure the safety and quality of the goods produced, they responded:
- We employ QA/QC and/or lab techs who perform tests in-house—28.9%
- We send samples to an outside lab—24.1%
- Both of the above—32.5%
- We do not test 14.5%
As illustrated above, the vast majority of processors report adopting some sort of lab testing procedures, whether in-house or through contract. The size of these facilities varies — nearly two-thirds of respondents report employing between 0 to 5 lab technicians, while 20.5 percent report employing 12 or more — as do the reasons for implementing testing, as seen in the chart at right.
According to the responses to this survey, the staffing levels of food laboratories appear to be relatively stable, with, perhaps, slight growth. While about two-thirds of respondents reported no change in either contract lab staff or in-house lab staff (or both), the percentage of readers reporting gains in in-house lab staff was 14 points higher than those reporting losses (24.4 percent versus 10.3 percent), and those reporting an increase in contract lab staff was slightly up from those reporting a decrease (15.2 percent versus 13.9 percent).
As seen in the chart at left, Food Manufacturing readers report a wide range of testing parameters that go well beyond ensuring food safety. While quality, consistency and food safety are the top concerns, allergen testing and packaging claims are also evaluated by some processors through laboratory testing.
What is done with batches between the time that they are manufactured and tested can vary from facility to facility. Of those readers who report lab testing as part of their process, 78.2 percent report holding batches until clean lab tests are returned, while the remaining report shipping batches before results are returned. For processors in the latter group, this protocol may increase the risk of recall if contamination is found through testing after the product has shipped. For some processors working with product with limited shelf-life, the risk may be worth the additional product life gained by shipping early.
When asked about the greatest difficulty faced in implementing effective lab testing procedures, readers reported:
- The time it takes to get test results—25.0%
- Changing regulations—23.8%
- Difficulty finding qualified/competent workers—18.8%
- Difficulty with buy-in among upper management or executives—10.0%
- The accuracy of test results—10.0%
- Choosing what to test for—6.3%
But for the most part, readers report a high level of satisfaction with the effectiveness of laboratory testing procedures within their organizations. As shown in the chart at right, 93.8 percent of survey respondents report a belief that their facility’s testing policies are “effective in ensuring food safety.”