How to Use FMEA to Risk Assess Pathogen Testing Methods

By Maria Fontanazza
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All methods are not equal, and companies must understand the testing methods used on a Certificate of Analysis.

A Certificate of Analysis (COA) can provide a company with a level of confidence in the quality and purity of its product.  However, the company should be able to take the document and understand how the results were gathered, says Maureen Harte, President and CEO at HartePro Consulting, and Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt. Using Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) can help a company identify, quantify and assess risks associated with pathogen detection methods, and should be integrated into a HACCP strategy.

Food Safety Tech: What are the challenges a company faces when assessing results on a Certificate of Analysis (COA)?

Maureen Harte: [Companies] lack the background information to really understand what goes into a COA, and they trust that what is coming to them is the highest quality.

FST: What questions should a company ask?

Harte: They need to consider everything that goes into the testing method itself.

•    What is the origin of the COA?
•    Who’s doing the testing?
•    What’s the complexity of the method?
•    What is the overall quality of the method?
•    How traceable is it?
•    How well can I trust that this result is the true result (are there false negatives)?

FST: How is FMEA used to evaluate pathogen testing methods?

Harte: FMEA helps us understand the differences between testing methods by individually identifying the risks associated with each method on its own. For each process step [in a test method], we ask: Where could it go wrong, and where could an error or failure mode occur? Then we put it down on paper and understand each failure mode.

For example, most methods have an incubation step. A simple failure mode would be that the incubator isn’t at the correct temperature, or that it has been incubated too long or not long enough. You go across the board for each step, identifying potential failures and the severity. Is there potential that we wouldn’t identify the pathogen? If so, what would happen to the customer? You also rate how often it might happen with the test method. What’s the frequency of it? The last thing we rate is detection. With or without controls, how easy would it be for the personnel in the lab to identify or detect that this problem occurred?

We rate these three factors: severity, frequency and detection, and whether we detect [the pathogen] before it goes out to the retailer or consumer. Then we multiply the ratings and come up with a risk priority number (RPN).  We add all RPNs for each step and figure out risk, and the potential for error, for each test methodology.

 Image courtesy of Roka Bioscience

FST: How does using FMEA integrate into a HACCP strategy?

Harte: It could be integrated into the HACCP strategy. HACCP deals with identifying potential safety risks, and the key to identifying the risks and proactively trying to eliminating them. That’s what the FMEA is doing as well. I think the integration of FMEA could help identify the critical control points and where the failures will occur. That would be the most streamlined approach.

Harte’s Tips

•    Don’t fully trust the COA unless you understand what the result means.
•    Get involved with the labs that are providing the testing to ensure you have the most comprehensive information surrounding the COA.

Harte is presenting “Behind the Certificate of Analysis: Risk Assessment in Pathogen Testing Methods” at the Food Safety Summit on Thursday, April 30, 12:30-1:00 pm.


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Maria Fontanazza, Food Safety Tech

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