Food Safety 101: Best Practices, Challenges & LIMS for Food Testing Laboratories

Food Safety 101

June 11, 2020

Globalization and the increasing population has put an ever-increasing demand on the food industry. Increased demand leads to increased production and a decreased timeline to meet the demands of the market. This inevitably leads to an increase in food safety breaches and food fraud. Biological and chemical infectants in food products can lead to major food-borne disease outbreaks leading to large scale global pandemics.

What is Food Safety?

Food safety refers to the safe handling of food items through sampling, manufacturing, preparation, packaging, distribution, and storage of food to avoid foodborne illnesses. Food testing and manufacturing laboratories need to follow a set of rules and regulations to ensure that the products they release to the market are safe for consumption and free of contaminants that could potentially cause an outbreak. This involves critical planning and close regulation of the production line, sampling points, and managing and scheduling tests effectively.

Due to globalization and a huge supply chain of the products and ingredients, inspecting, maintaining quality control, following proper sampling protocols, and rigorous testing have taken center-stage in various food processing and in-house or contract testing units. This coupled with the fact that food products are almost globally utilized and food supply chains are from across the globe, food testing laboratories need to adhere to both local and international Food Safety Standards. Some of the bodies governing these standards include the US FDA, European Food Law, and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

What are Food Safety Challenges?

In the face of globalization, a major challenge is the international nature of the food supply chain. Every day, new challenges are coming up in maintaining food safety.

Some of these challenges include:

  1. Environmental changes that can lead to increased food contamination.
  2. Newly emerging microbial populations like bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Increased globalization, leading to an increase in food import and export.
  3. Changes in detection methods for food-borne illness and contagion.
  4. Changes in food habits are another major cause, as displayed with the current COVID-19 situation.

What are Food Safety Practices?

1. Food Safety Management Plan

The first and foremost food safety practice is to draw up a Food Safety Management plan that involves capabilities for real-time product safety testing at all stages of production, processing, and distribution. Additionally, these protocols need to adhere to international standards of food safety. A good plan is more of a preventive measure to prevent any possible infection/outbreak rather than a defensive/offensive response. Two major responsive/preventive actions are complete traceability of food samples from farm to fork and quality control.

2. Sample Traceability

Traceability can be defined as a process that ensures that food items and the raw ingredients are tracked throughout the supply chain, or in laboratory terms, throughout the production line, packaging, and delivery. Traceability ensures that any food item or its corresponding raw ingredients are accounted for at any step of the production process. This makes quality control easier during sampling and safety testing of the food items.

A major impact of mismanagement of food safety is not only the recall and production losses but also reputational risk. In the recent past, the US FDA recorded voluntary recall of as many as 2,100 food products across 17 categories from 200 companies.

3. Quality Control (QC) and Quality Assurance (QA)

Quality control and quality assurance are important aspects of the food safety management plan. QA/QC ensures that the food items supplied to the market for consumption meet all the defined safety requirements. Food testing laboratories perform a myriad of tests, including tests for pesticide residues, herbicides, pathogens, routine organisms, mycotoxins, allergens, food contaminants, antibiotics residues, and veterinary drugs in animal origin food. QC and QA help food and beverage testing laboratories quickly set standards for all tests and easily identify out-of-specification results. Proper QC and QA validate a food product’s safety for consumption and reduces the scope of a food recall.

How Can a LIMS Help in Ensuring Food Safety?

A LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) can help schedule instrument calibration and maintenance, maintain training records of personnel, automate testing workflows and integrate with analytical instruments for data transfer, thereby increasing a laboratory’s efficiency and productivity, decreasing turnaround time, and eliminating transcription errors.

A major food safety practice, batch traceability, is made easier by implementing a LIMS. Sample management capabilities of a LIMS seamlessly keep track of food products and raw ingredients throughout its life cycle in the laboratory. A LIMS can easily establish and manage batch relationships between the raw ingredients, samples at each stage of production, and the final food product. Additionally, for a food testing laboratory, a LIMS easily maintains sample requisition, and keeps a track of the samples, right from receiving test requests, testing of samples, generating Certificates of Analysis (CoA), to disposal of samples.

A LIMS is designed to efficiently handle tests, manage test results, and control the quality assurance processes of a food testing laboratory. A LIMS automates the tracking of the QC samples, manages QC test results, and helps analyze trends across a set of samples. Using a LIMS, a laboratory can easily trace a test's turnaround time and automatically mark the test results that lie within acceptable limits. A LIMS also aids in reporting the testing results appropriately while following regulatory guidelines, such as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act), ISO/IEC 17025:2017.

A LIMS can easily keep a track of the various laboratory equipment and their calibration status, thus ensuring that tests are not conducted using faulty, ill-maintained, and out of spec equipment. This process also facilitates easy audits and eases adhering to HACCP, FSMA, and ISO/IEC 17025:2017 compliance. A LIMS software helps ensure that the food testing as well as the food processing unit is well-equipped for regulatory audits with a fully traceable system mapping the laboratory’s Food Safety Management Plan from the beginning to the end. Furthermore, it provides a complete and secure solution to manage, track, and monitor batches of food samples throughout the laboratory until packaging and distribution.

What do We Conclude?

In conclusion, food safety is a major requirement for food manufacturers. Food testing laboratories are responsible for ensuring the food products are safe for consumption by conducting routine tests and proper tracking of the food products. Food manufacturers need to follow a proper traceability protocol to ensure that food products and their raw ingredients are accounted for and properly sampled and tested, either in-house or by a third-party contract food testing laboratory, throughout the production cycle and till packaging and distribution. Additionally, all this needs to be done while following regulatory guidelines and safety standards.

A LIMS helps automate the traceability process, thus effectively reducing the workload, increasing productivity, and ensuring maintenance of proper food safety protocols. It easily helps identify trends across the QC samples, assuring quality, and maintaining proper quality control across the test procedures. A Food and Beverage LIMS also easily documents all the processes, establishes an easy to access audit, and makes following regulatory compliance easy. This decreases the overall turnaround time and enhances the efficacy of both food testing laboratories and food processing units.

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