Jacob Bowland, Heateflex
In the Food Lab

FSMA to Increase Role for Food Microbiology Testing Laboratories

By Jacob Bowland
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Jacob Bowland, Heateflex

Implementing new technologies will help labs streamline the compliance process.

As a result of the finalization of FSMA regulations on September 10, 2015, increasing requirements for procedures, documentation and testing will soon be impacting the food industry. The major effects on the food microbiology testing market will come in the form of an increase in the volume of samples that must be processed in accordance with the new FSMA rules, along with an improved emphasis on accurate and complete record keeping. The goals of FSMA are to create a new safety standard across the entire food chain. Increasing food pathogen testing will minimize possible recalls and the probability that dangerous food outbreaks occur.

Food manufacturers’ testing labs and third-party accredited testing labs can meet the demand for increased testing and improved record keeping in one of two ways: Via facility expansion or via implementing new technologies into the laboratory. While facility expansion might be an ideal long-term solution, it will not address the immediate surge in lab demand brought on by the new FSMA requirements, as it takes time to build new laboratories and hire employees. Implementing new technologies in the lab, then, makes the most sense, and where automation can be introduced into traditionally-manual processes, higher throughput may be realized using existing personnel and facilities.  Automation further removes human error and improves the quality of the test being performed. The challenge for lab managers will be to objectively look at the current production bottlenecks in their testing operations and determine where technology may be introduced to increase throughput.

In addition to mandating additional testing, the FSMA regulations will require improved lab record keeping, as well as a new accreditation process that FDA will implement. The food testing industry faces the same dilemma that the healthcare industry faced some years ago in migrating from manual files to electronic health records.  Lab notebooks have a real purpose in the lab, but their purpose should be more as a backup system to information that is gathered and stored electronically. While Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) have been around for many years, their full potential in pathogen testing has yet to be realized. A properly designed LIMS provides an electronic database that not only aids in the accreditation process, but also allows samples to be traced throughout the testing facility.  This allows positive test results to be screened from false positives or false negatives, and points to which equipment or procedures in the testing process need to be improved upon.  LIMS technology for recording digital information can also trace user, operation time and performance specifications more accurately than lab notebook-based processes.

In summary, many changes are coming to the food industry as a result of increased regulations, presenting exciting opportunities to develop new products and technologies to alleviate the pain points within testing labs.  The industry of food pathogen testing must change alongside the regulatory atmosphere in order to be competitive in a post-FSMA era.

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