The Importance of Laboratory Testing for Food Production

Laboratory testing is an important process, which relies on scientific analysis to identify problems with food products. It provides analytical data on the quality of a product or production process to support quality control in the HACCP system.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the May/June print issue of Food Manufacturing.

Today, in the food industry, it is widely accepted that a quality management system is a tool to support business survival and growth in the long term.

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) is a preventive system designed to ensure that all food safety production is operated according to the Codex Alimentarius International Food Standards. The objective of the HACCP system is to prove that products are properly manufactured for the health and safety of consumers by avoiding three hazard sources:

Biological hazards: Derived from microbial hazards such as salmonella and E. coli bacteria.

Chemical hazards: Contamination with chemicals used in agriculture and the production processes of raw materials such as antibiotics, plant growth substances and pesticides, as well as food additives such as preservatives, and including chemicals that are used in the production/processing plant such as oil, grease and cleaning agents for equipment and machinery.

Physical hazards: Foreign objects in food that can cause illness or injury to the consumer such as glass, pieces of metal, plastic or wood.

The application of a HACCP system is based on technical and scientific principles used to evaluate hazards and collect data for analysis. With this information, a plan can be devised to avoid problems and to monitor and solve problems that do occur, while continuously verifying the performance of the system.

Also See: Preventing Contamination

Laboratory testing is an important process, which relies on scientific analysis to identify problems with food products. It provides analytical data on the quality of a product or production process to support quality control in the HACCP system. The objective of quality control is to identify contaminants in raw material, or contamination after a product is produced and before it is placed on the market. Additionally, laboratory testing is important for the research and development of new products, including, for example, the choice of ingredients or components, the design of food processing, shelf-life studies and sensory evaluation of products. This is the kind of information food scientists need when developing new products. Another benefit of laboratory testing is compliance with regulations for both the import and export of food products to different countries. Food regulation is designed to protect public health and the safety of consumers. For example:

• In the United States, nutrition information is required on packaged retail foods in the form of food labeling, to comply with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling regulations. The "Nutrition Facts" on the label must show total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, fiber, sugar, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron content. In addition, it may include nutrition claims such as "low fat", "low cholesterol" and “low sugar.” Consumers can use this information to select healthy foods and make informed buying decisions. This allows manufacturers to be competitive and develop new products, increasing consumer choice.

• The FDA sets action levels that specify maximum levels of specific contaminants that may be found in a food sample. The FDA will take action if they find that contaminants in a product exceed the action level. For example, the action level for aflatoxin in foods for human consumption, such as peanuts and peanut products, and Brazil and pistachio nuts, is 20 parts per billion (ppb), to protect human and animal health. If food is found to contain aflatoxin at a value exceeding the acceptable level, its sale or export is not allowed.

Therefore, food manufacturers must have traceability in their industry to ensure their food products are safe, with no contaminants or residues, and to provide accurate nutritional information. General laboratory testing of a manufacturer’s product may include the following techniques:

Analytical chemistry testing: The study of the separation, identification, and quantification of the chemical components of natural and artificial materials such as pH, additives, colors, contaminants, preservatives, minerals and trace elements, among others.

Food microbiology testing: The study of the microorganisms that inhabit or contaminate food to help manufacturers assess the safety of raw materials, components, ingredients and final products, thus guaranteeing the safety of food products. Testing for spoilage organisms and pathogens may be used to examine and prevent food poisoning outbreaks caused by food products and ingredients. This is important, as the whole supply chain may be contaminated in the process of food production.

Food nutrition analysis: An analysis of value and the nutritional content in foods and food products. It provides information for nutrition labeling on food packaging that manufacturers are required to include to comply with the labeling regulations of destination countries. Therefore, manufacturers and importers/exporters should be fully aware of the applicable laws and regulations of a country before offering their foods for distribution there.

Food allergen testing: Food allergens are proteins that can appear in large quantities and often remain in food processing. The requirement is to find the target allergen in the ingredients and finished products. The allergens that must be tested for in food products include gluten in grains, peanuts, eggs, nuts, milk and soybeans.

Sensory testing: Sensory testing is identification of food product properties by using the human senses (sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing) for the purposes of evaluating consumer products. In smell testing, olfactory receptors in the nose identify rancidity in a product. In tasting, the sensory organs on the tongue can identify the intensity of sweetness in food products.

Test results should come from a competent laboratory with appropriate technical expertise in food analysis using techniques such as gas chromatography and high-pressure liquid chromatography for analysis of the purity, or determination of the content, of many substances in mixture samples. Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry is a type of mass spectrometry that is capable of detecting metals and several non-metals at the low concentrations required in industrial monitoring. The laboratory used should be accredited under a standard such as the ISO/IEC 17025 standard. ISO/IEC 17025 is the general requirement for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories. A competent laboratory will use ISO/IEC 17025 to implement a quality system to improve and maintain its ability to produce consistently accurate and reliable results.

The two main sections in ISO/IEC 17025 are management and technical requirements. They are intended to ensure efficiency and technical competency in all calibration and testing.

The management requirements are primarily related to the operation and effectiveness of the laboratory’s quality management system. They cover a broad scope of topics, such as:

• The organization and management structure of the laboratory

• Document control

• Standardization of test methods to ensure consistency

• The selection and purchasing of services and supplies

• Customer feedback mechanisms

The technical requirements cover factors that determine the accuracy and reliability of the tests and calibrations. These factors include:

• Staff competence

• Methodology and procedures

• Test and calibration equipment

• Quality control program

Additionally, laboratories should be accredited for the specific methods that they conduct in their labs. For example, a food laboratory may be accredited for pesticide residues testing in fruits and vegetables but not for milk or animal tissue. Therefore, the food producer should ensure that the lab selected has accreditation for the specific method needed.

ISO/IEC 17025 is a system of quality management that covers personnel, tools or equipment, the environment and internal management systems. It is intended to check all processes and ensure accurate, reliable and consistent testing. Therefore, the laboratory should be operating this system independently, which is important in supplying unbiased information for the food industry. This information should help in responding to market demands as well as the needs of consumers, while increasing food safety and promoting healthy products.

About SGS Food Safety Services

SGS is committed to keeping readers informed of regulatory news and developments. Leveraging a global network of laboratories and food experts, SGS provides a comprehensive range of food safety and quality solutions including analytical pesticide residue testing, audits, certifications, inspections and technical support. The company continually invests in world class testing capabilities and state-of-the-art technology to help clients reduce risks, and improve food safety and quality.

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