Is Your Lab Helping or Hurting Your Food Test Data Management?

Test data is one of your greatest assets for ensuring food safety standards, which makes it integral to maintaining an effective, compliant food safety plan. Even if you’re collecting, managing and leveraging your food test data, however, you could be overlooking a critical piece of the puzzle: your testing environment. After all, having accurate test data relies not only on the validity of specific test samples, but also on the quality of the testing environment.

As the food supply chain becomes more and more complicated, food safety regulations continue to heighten and brands shoulder an increasing amount of risk, manufacturers are pressed to implement proactive food safety plans that minimize the threat of compromised products and instances of non-compliance. Test data management has been crucial to this objective, as data provides unparalleled insight into the viability of food safety efforts.

Technology continues to make test data management even more capable and useful in the world of food safety, but there’s still a major opportunity for inaccuracy and other hindrances if your laboratory environment is not meeting the highest standards of quality. Read on to find out whether your lab is actually facilitating your test data management or, in fact, causing more serious problems.

Where to Look

The International Accreditation Service (IAS) is a nonprofit, public-benefit corporation that accredits a wide range of companies and organizations based on recognized national and international standards. IAS has set certain guidelines for food testing laboratories performing analyses in the examination of food products, ingredients in the production of food, in-process food samples, environmental samples pertinent to foods (swabs, debris, scrapings, air, condensate, etc.) and final products. You can look to these guidelines in evaluating whether your laboratory services are supporting or hindering your test data management efforts:   

Testing Facility and Spaces

  • The laboratory activities shall be arranged in such a way to minimize cross contamination and shall be segregated from other activities in the laboratory with limited access, where necessary. Within the laboratory, activities such as sample preparation, extraction and analysis need to be adequately separated from each other to avoid contamination or cross contamination:
  1. Microbiological testing areas shall be adequately separated and appropriate procedures applied to maintain sterility. Activities can be segregated by time or space. In PCR testing, PCR equipment, Master Mix preparation and DNA-RNA extraction shall be isolated from other microbiological activities.
  2. Appropriate procedures shall be applied during sample preparation for trace and ultra-trace chemical contamination testing including, but not limited to, pesticide residue analysis.
  • The laboratory shall be ventilated to reduce the levels of contamination. The laboratory test area should be air-conditioned to control humidity and temperature.
  • Work space temperature and test area humidity shall be monitored. The recommended relative humidity in the test area is 45-50% RH and the temperature in 8 Revised January 1, 2016 the test area is 20-25°C. This may be done by natural or forced ventilation or by the use of an air conditioner. Where air conditioners are used, filters should be appropriate, inspected, maintained and replaced according to the type of work being carried out.
  • Bench tops (work surfaces) and floors shall be made of impervious, smooth, easily cleaned materials. There shall be at least six linear feet of bench or surface workspace for each analyst while working. Walls and ceilings should be made of materials that are smooth and easily cleaned.

Facility Equipment

  • The laboratory shall be furnished with all items of sampling, measurement and test equipment required for the correct performance of the tests, including sampling, preparation of test items, processing and analysis of test data. 10 Revised January 1, 2016
  • All equipment (especially those items having an impact on the uncertainty of the results) listed in the methods shall meet the specifications relevant to the method and shall be calibrated and/or verified against those specifications. The frequency of calibration of equipment shall be appropriate to the operation of the equipment to achieve the accuracy relevant to the method.
  • The laboratory shall have documented procedures for the handling, transport, storage and use of measuring equipment to prevent contamination or deterioration.
  • The laboratory shall document maintenance schedules and procedures. Maintenance records shall be maintained. All critical equipment, where appropriate, shall undergo regular maintenance and service. The following equipment, but not limited to, are examples of critical equipment requiring regular maintenance and servicing as specified: refrigerators, freezers where samples and certified reference samples are stored, ovens, incubators, water baths, centrifuges, pH meters, balances, analytical instruments such as chromatographs and spectrometers. The laboratory’s water source shall be tested to ensure that it meets requirements for chemical and microbiological testing (e.g., MilliQ water for chemical and sterile water for microbiology). Typically, the following items of equipment will be maintained by cleaning and servicing, inspecting for damage, general verification and, where relevant, sterilizing:
  1. general service equipment – filtration apparatus, glass or plastic containers (bottles, test tubes), glass or plastic Petri dishes, sampling instruments, wires or loops of platinum, nickel/chromium or disposable plastic;
  2. water baths, incubators, microbiological cabinets, autoclaves, homogenizers, fridges, freezers;
  3. volumetric equipment – pipettes, automatic dispensers, spiral platens;
  4. measuring instruments – thermometers, timers, balances, pH meters, colony counters.

Testing Facility Staff

  • The laboratory shall have a selection procedure and training system to ensure technical competence of all staff members. Food testing shall be done by or supervised by competent personnel. Staff should have relevant practical work experience before being allowed to perform work covered by the scope of accreditation without supervision or before being considered as experienced for supervision of accredited work. 
  • Training shall include all methods or portions of methods and techniques that each person is responsible for performing. At a minimum, each analyst shall demonstrate competency through observation by management and verification using replicate and/or check samples. For technicians performing only portions of a specific method, competency may be confirmed/verified by direct observation only. Especially for Food Microbiology labs, the interpretation of test results for identification and verification of micro-organisms is strongly connected to the experience of the performing analyst and should be monitored for each analyst on a regular basis.
  • The continued competence of staff must be monitored/appraised using appropriate means (e.g., by objective measurements such as PT performance, blind sample performance, etc., or visual observation) as appropriate.
  • Training records shall include documentation of all relevant internal and external training and method performance verifications.

What to Look For

As you analyze the various aspects of your laboratory testing environment, work on identifying any deviations from the above standards, as well as the existence of any biological or chemical contaminants, risk-prone procedures and practices, and instances of noncompliance by employees. Any and all of these factors can compromise the validity of your data, thereby diminishing the effectiveness of your food safety efforts.

How to Take Action

If (or, more likely, when) you pinpoint areas in the food testing laboratory that put your test data management at risk, it is essential to take swift, effective action. You should implement a robust corrective action protocol plan to protect consumers and improve the state of your lab environment going forward. Some of the most critical tasks include:

  1. Communicating with key stakeholders and confirming risk points
  2. Stopping operation of any affected production lines and determining the disposition of products
  3. Bringing together critical components and people, as well as historical data, departmental or program data, etc.
  4. Developing a flow diagram with inputs and outputs at each step, and mapping this to statements from the team on the floor and other activities at the plant
  5. Addressing the situation based on predetermined policies and standards
  6. Confirming, once corrective actions are complete, that cleaning and sanitation is effectively performed
  7. Using the findings to improve lab testing, processes, the overall environmental monitoring program and plant operations
  8. Documenting any and all findings, incidents, corrective actions and outcomes

Corvium CONTROL has mapped these processes to its software functionality, which simplifies your efforts and greatly reduces the risks posed to your company. With this food intelligence solution, your monitoring and corrective action process can be fully automated and highly efficient, with features that:

  • Automatically trigger corrective actions and send notifications to the predetermined responsible individual(s)
  • Prompt users to complete each of the steps in the process, as well as attach lists, pictures, meeting minutes or other relevant documents as needed
  • Schedule re-tests based on customized corrective action protocol
  • Make all results and audit trails available for review and fully documented for historical purposes

It can’t be said enough: Test data management is fundamental to ensuring informed, viable food safety efforts. Intelligent, automated technology that diminishes inaccuracies and other problems in your laboratory and production environments is a critical part of the equation. The more confident you can be about the validity of your data, the more peace of mind you can have regarding your company’s efforts to identify and correct food safety issues before they spiral into large-scale, brand-damaging outcomes.

To find out more about how food safety intelligence software helps reduce lab testing and food safety risk in your facility, access your free guide now.

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