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LIMS, laboratory information management system

Integrated Informatics: Optimizing Food Quality and Safety by Building Regulatory Compliance into the Supply Chain

By Kevin Smith
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LIMS, laboratory information management system

Global food supply chains offer consumers more choice than ever before. Thanks to international networks of producers, wholesalers, manufacturers and suppliers, many ingredients can be sourced all year round, meaning diets are no longer limited by what’s in season. However, the increasing complexity of these supply chains means many food and beverage products are potentially more exposed to biological and chemical contamination as well as food fraud issues, putting brand reputation and human health at risk.

With consumer trust and public safety of paramount importance, global food regulators have introduced strict rules to protect the quality and authenticity of products. Regulations such as the FDA’s Food Protection Plan, for example, seek to incorporate safety measures throughout food supply chains in order to better prevent and respond to potential issues.1 These regulations are complemented by standards such as the ISO’s recently updated ISO 22000:2018 guidelines that recommend the implementation of hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) to achieve the highest levels of quality control (QC).2 For businesses working within this regulatory framework, it is essential to take a coordinated approach to deliver the standards of food quality and safety that customers and regulators expect.

Every food supply chain will have its own set of product specifications and QC parameters. However, all these requirements demand that decisions on the release of goods are made using accurate and timely information. Given the growing attention from regulators on the safety and provenance of food, as well as the need for operations to run as efficiently as possible, supply chain stakeholders are reevaluating the digital platforms they use to manage, store and recall their data. Here, we consider how laboratory information management systems (LIMS) can help businesses integrate efficient data collection workflows across multiple locations to support robust QC testing and build regulatory compliance into their operations.

Meeting the Challenges Facing Modern Food Supply Chains

Assuring consistent product quality and safety is a constant challenge for food supply chain businesses, given the broad range of issues that can compromise these standards. Although most businesses adopt strict storage and handling protocols to minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses caused by bacterial contamination, high-profile public health stories regularly hit the headlines. The widespread use of pesticides and veterinary drugs in farming also means that ingredients are potentially exposed to a wide range of known and unknown chemical contaminants. Contamination can also occur during the handling, processing and packaging stages. Robust QC measures are therefore essential to identify issues as early as possible.

Equally, food adulteration and counterfeiting continue to be key challenges, with high-value products regularly targeted by food fraudsters. The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that up to 10% of all commercially sold food products are affected by these practices, costing the industry between $10 and $15 billion each year and putting public health at risk.3 Comprehensive QC testing, supported by robust chain of custody data, is required to demonstrate quality and authenticity of goods, protect brands and safeguard consumers.

However, the extended nature of modern food supply chains can make delivering against these goals more difficult, especially if poorly integrated information management approaches are employed. As food supply chains have gone global, it has become increasingly common for businesses to operate storage, production and processing facilities across sites in multiple regions, countries and even continents. To deliver goods that meet well-defined safety and quality specifications, QC workflows must be built upon standardized protocols that are implemented correctly across the supply chain, regardless of the individual following them or the location in which they operate. These workflows must be supported by robust information exchange mechanisms that make sure the right decisions around product manufacturing and batch release can be made using accurate, complete and up-to-date information.

Improving QC Data Quality Using Integrated Data Management Solutions

With fragmented information management approaches often getting in the way of this ideal, many food businesses are looking to transform their poorly connected systems into informatics platforms that streamline operations, improve visibility and reduce errors. The latest LIMS allow businesses to bring all their QC data into a single integrated system, helping to harmonize processes and make information sharing more efficient to enhance product quality and safety.

Take the execution of standard operating procedures (SOPs) for pesticide residue testing, for example. By centrally connecting instruments and storing SOPs digitally on a LIMS, processes and parameters can be downloaded directly, eliminating the need for human error-prone manual set-up and supporting the consistent collection of data. Furthermore, because these SOPs are located in a centralized system, securely accessible to authorized users across all sites and facilities, the risk of SOPs becoming out of date or out of sync is greatly reduced. With guidance on residue levels regularly updated to reflect the evolving knowledge of these threats, ensuring the latest testing protocols are applied is particularly important.

Additionally, because LIMS capture and store QC measurements directly, as it is generated, they eliminate the need for labor-intensive transcription and data transfer processes. Not only does this improve measurement accuracy by taking human error out of the equation, it also boosts efficiency and reduces the administrative burden on those responsible for collecting QC data. As a result, experienced staff can spend less time on paperwork and data entry, and more time actively optimizing processes and finding solutions to other key challenges. With access to the most accurate and up-to-date information, businesses are better placed to maintain the integrity of the food supply chain and can act to resolve potential issues before they turn into more significant problems.

Supporting Well-Defined QC Processes and Regulatory Compliance

With international food regulators turning their attention to the methods used to assure the quality and authenticity of foodstuffs, supply chain stakeholders are now expected to have well-defined QC workflows that not only provide complete traceability of products from farm to fork, but also transparency around processes such as instrument calibration and data handling.

LIMS, laboratory information management system
Modern LIMS allow food businesses to visualize their workflow data using dashboards, process diagrams or facility maps. Image courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

LIMS allow food businesses to build regulatory compliance into their processes by providing a comprehensive overview of all supply chain data, including information associated with QC steps. As all data required to support proof of compliance is organized in a single system, it can be quickly and conveniently recalled for sharing or review purposes. Some of the latest systems allow users to visualize this data holistically on process diagrams or dashboards, helping to fulfill HACCP requirements and make keeping track of active workflows as easy as possible.

Furthermore, because LIMS can be used to capture and store data automatically, they also facilitate the real-time monitoring of supply chain processes, meaning out-of-specification QC parameters can be flagged and reported earlier. The sophisticated algorithms present in some of the latest LIMS can even be used to warn businesses of small but significant trends such as the decline in performance of an aging instrument, which could cause unexpected downtime or cause product quality standards to fall over time. These alerting capabilities mean potential issues can be remedied faster, helping stakeholders more proactively protect consumer safety.

Defensible data is central to protecting brand integrity, especially when it comes to issues around food adulteration and counterfeiting. As such, food businesses need robust data management tools that support complete traceability of actions. By automatically recording every interaction with the system to generate a comprehensive audit trail and facilitating the use of e-signatures to document review procedures, LIMS can safeguard the highest levels of accountability, from data collection all the way through to results reporting. Some of the most advanced LIMS also feature powerful audit trail search functionality, allowing authorized users to recall specific actions such as unusual QC activity or potentially non-compliant behavior. With a secure record of events and a single, integrated platform for supply chain data, food businesses can focus on what’s important—optimizing processes and delivering high-quality goods.

Optimizing and Safeguarding the Food Supply Chain Using LIMS

Modern LIMS allow food supply chain stakeholders to build regulatory compliance into their workflows by standardizing QC processes and giving authorized individuals full visibility over their data. By facilitating faster and more informed decision-making using accurate and up-to-the-minute data, LIMS are helping businesses meet current industry challenges head on to maintain the safety and integrity of the food supply chain.

References

  1. FDA. (November 2007). Food Protection Plan. Access April 7, 2019. Retrieved from , https://www.fda.gov/downloads/aboutfda/centeroffices/oc/officeofoperations/ucm121761.pdf .
  2.  International Organization for Standardization. (June 2018). ISO 22000:2018(en) Food safety management systems — Requirements for any organization in the food chain..
  3. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and A.T. Kearney. (2010). Consumer Product Fraud: Deterrence and Detection.
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

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.

Laboratory Information Management System

How LIMS Facilitates ISO 17025 Certification in Food Testing Labs

By Dr. Christine Paszko
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Laboratory Information Management System

In order to ensure that a food testing laboratory maintains a quality management system that effectively manages all aspects of laboratory operations that affect quality, there are numerous records, reports and data that must be recorded, documented and managed.

Gathering, organizing and controlling all the data that is generated, managed and stored by food testing laboratories can be challenging to say the least. As the ISO Standards and regulatory requirements for food testing laboratories evolve, so does the need for improved quality data management systems. Historical systems that were very efficient and effective 10 years ago, may no longer meet the demanding requirements for ISO 17025 certification. One way to meet the challenge is to turn to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable resources.

There are many reasons for laboratories to seek this certification, including to enhance reputation, gain a competitive advantage, reduce operational costs, and meet regulatory compliance goals. A major advantage for food testing laboratories to obtain ISO 17025 Certification is that is tells prospective clients that the laboratory has a strong commitment to quality, and they hold the certification to prove it. This certification not only boosts a laboratory’s reputation, but it also demonstrates an organization’s commitment to quality, operational efficiency and management practices. Proof of ISO 17025 Certification eliminates the need for independent supplier audits, because the quality, capability and expertise of the laboratory have been verified by external auditors. Many ISO Certified laboratories will only buy products (raw materials, supplies and software) and services from other ISO-certified firms so that they do not need to do additional work in qualifying the vendor or the products.

There are many areas in which a LIMS supports and promotes ISO 17025 compliance. Laboratories are required to manage and maintain SOPs (standard operating procedures) that accurately reflect all phases of current laboratory activities such as assessing data integrity, taking corrective actions, handling customer complaints, managing all test methods, and managing all documents pertaining to quality. In addition, all contact with clients and their testing instructions should be recorded and kept with the job/project documentation for access by the staff performing the tests/calibrations. With a computerized LIMS, laboratory staff can scan in all paper forms that arrive with the samples (special instructions, chain of custody (CoC), or any other documentation). This can be linked to the work order and is easy assessable by anyone who has  the appropriate permissions. The LIMS provides extensive options for tracking and maintaining all correspondence, the ability to attach electronic files, scanned documents, create locked PDFs of final reports, COAs (Certificate of Analysis), and CoCs.

Sample Handling and Acceptance

Laboratories are required to have a procedure that defines all processes that a sample is subjected to while in the possession of the laboratory. Some of these procedures will relate to sample preservation, holding time requirements, and the type of container in which the sample is collected or stored. Other information that must be tracked includes sample identification and receipt procedures, along with acceptance or rejection criteria at log-in. Sample log-in begins and defines the entire analysis and disposal process, therefore it is important that all sample storage, tracking and shipping receipts as well as sample transmittal forms (CoC) are stored, managed and maintained throughout the sample’s analysis to final disposal. To summarize, the laboratory should have written procedures around the following related to sample preservation:

  • Preservation
  • Sample identification
  • Sample acceptance conditions
  • Holding timesShipping informationStorage
  • Results and Reporting
  • Disposal

The LIMS must allow capture and tracking of data throughout the sample’s active lifetime. In addition, laboratories are also required to document, manage and maintain essential information associated with the analytical analysis, such as incubator and refrigerator temperature charts, and instrument run files/logs. Also important is capturing data from any log books, which would include the unique sample identifier, and the date and time of the analysis, along with if the holding time is 72 hours or less or when time critical steps are included in the analysis, such as sample preparations, extractions, or incubations. Capturing the temperature data can be automated such that the data can be directly imported into the LIMS. If there is an issue with the temperature falling outside of a range, an email can automatically be spawned or a message sent to a cell phone to alert the responsible party. Automation saves time and money, and can prevent many potential problems via the LIMS ability to import and act on real-time data.

If any instrumentation is used in the analysis, the following information must also be recorded in the instrument identification (to ensure that it is in calibration, and all maintenance and calibration records are current), operating conditions/parameters, analysis type, any calculations, and analyst identification. In addition to analyst identification, laboratories must also keep track of analyst training as it relates to their laboratory functions. For example, if an analyst has not been trained on a particular method or if their certification has expired, the LIMS will not allow them to enter any result into the LIMS for the method(s) that they have not been trained/certified to perform. The LIMS can also send automated alerts when the training is about to expire. Figure 1 shows a screen in the LIMS that manages training completed, scheduled, tests scores, and expiration dates of the training, along with the ability to attach any training certificates, exams, or any other relevant documentation. Laboratory managers can also leverage the LIMS to pull reports that compare analyst work quality via an audit report. If they determine that one analyst has a significant amount of samples that require auditing, they can then investigate if there is a possible training issue. Having immediate access to data allows managers to more rapidly identify and mitigate potential problems.

Laboratory Information Management System
LIMS manages a variety of aspects in training, including when it has been completed, scheduled, tests scores, and expiration dates. (Click to enlarge)

Another major area that a LIMS can provide significant benefit is around data integrity. There are four main elements of data integrity:

  1. Documentation in the quality management system that defines the data integrity procedure, which is approved (signed/dated) by senior management.
  2. Data integrity training for the entire laboratory. Ensures that the database is secure and locked and operates under referential integrity.
  3. Detailed, regular monitoring of data integrity. Includes reviewing the audit trail reports and analyzing logs for any suspicious behavior on the system.
  4. Signed data integrity documentation for all laboratory employees indicating that they have read and understand the processes and procedures that have been defined.

The LIMS will enhance the ability to track and manage data integrity training (along with all training). The LIMS will provide a definition of the training, the date, time, and topic (description); instructor(s); timeframe in which the training is relevant, reminders on when it needs to be repeated; along with  certifications, quiz scores, copies of quizzes, and more. With many tasks, the LIMS can provide managers with automated reports that are sent out at regular time intervals, schedule training for specific staff, provide them with automatic notification, schedule data integrity audits, and to facilitate FDA’s CFR 21 part 11 compliance (electronic signatures). The LIMS can also be configured to automatically have reports signed and delivered via fax or email, or to a web server. The LIMS manages permissions and privileges to all staff members that require access to specific data and have the ability to access that data, along with providing a secure document control mechanism.

Laboratories are also required to maintain SOPs that accurately reflect all phases of current laboratory operations such as assessing data integrity test methods, corrective actions and handling customer complaints. Most commercial LIMS provide the ability to link SOPs to the analytical methods such that analysts can pull down the SOP as they are doing the procedure to help ensure that no steps are omitted. Having the SOPs online ensures that everyone is using the same version of the locked SOPs, which are readily available and secure.

Administrative Records, Demonstration of Capability

Laboratories are required to manage and maintain the following information on an analyst working in the laboratory: Personal qualifications and experience and training records (degree certificates, CV’s), along with records of demonstration of capability for each analyst and a list of names (along with initials and signatures) for all staff that hold the responsibility to sign or initial any laboratory record. Most commercial LIMS will easily and securely track and manage all the required personnel records. Individuals responsible for signing off on laboratory records can be configured in the LIMS to not only document the assignment of responsibility but also to enforce it.

Reference Standards and Materials

Because the references and standards that laboratories use in their analytical measurements affect the correctness of the result, laboratories must have a system and procedures to manage and track the calibration of their reference standards. Documentation that calibration standards were calibrated by a body that can prove traceability must be provided. Although most standards are purchased from companies that specialize in the creation of reference standards, there are some standards that laboratories create internally that can also be traced and tracked in the LIMS. Most commercial LIMS will also allow for the creation, receipt, tracking, and management of all supplies in an inventory module, such that they document the reference material identification, lot numbers, expiration date, supplier, and vendor, and link the standard to all tests to which it was linked.

The ISO 17025 Standard identifies the high technical competence and management system requirements that guarantee your test results and calibrations are consistently accurate. The LIMS securely manages and maintains all the data that supports the Quality Management System.

Key advantages of food testing laboratories that have achieved ISO 17025 Certification with a computerized LIMS that securely and accurately stores all the pertinent data and information:

  • Proof of ISO 17025 Certification eliminates the need for supplier audits, because the quality, capability and expertise of the laboratory have been demonstrated by the certification.
  • Knowledge that there has been an evaluation of the staff, methods, instrumentation and equipment, calibration records and reporting to ensure test results are valid.
  • Verification of operational efficiency by external auditors that have validated the quality, capability and expertise of the laboratory.
  • Defines robust quality controls for the selection and authentication of methods, analyzing statistics, controlling and securing data.
  • Clearly defines each employee’s roles, responsibilities and accountability.
  • Confidence that the regulatory and safety requirements are effectively managed and met in a cost efficient-manner.

Traceability: Leveraging Automation to Satisfy FSMA Requirements

By Dr. Christine Paszko
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In America’s food supply chain, food is sourced globally. Since ingredients often come from multiple countries, inspection and quality control is challenging, as regulations, policies and processes differ in each country. Product management begins with the suppliers, from the fields where the foods are grown, to the pesticides and fertilizers used, to harvesting, washing, shipping, storing, and processing (manufacturers), and finally, to packaging and delivery to consumers.

Figure 1. LIMS will facilitate FSMA by providing complete traceability from farm to table, in addition to accelerating collaboration, communication and providing operational insight.
Figure 1. LIMS will facilitate FSMA by providing complete traceability from farm to table, in addition to accelerating collaboration, communication and providing operational insight. (Click to enlarge)

Figure 1 shows each step of the product management process can introduce contamination due to unsafe practices or other risks. As such, test data and traceability must begin in the field and end when the final product is delivered to the consumer. The Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) captures all information to ensure that quality data is effectively managed, communicated, and easily and quickly accessible in the event of a contamination issue. The LIMS allows producers to provide authorities with the required sampling and testing documentation to prove compliance.

U.S. consumers expect their food products to be affordable, consistent, safe and unadulterated. Consumers have seen numerous food recalls in the news, and it has shaken their confidence. The CDC estimates that about one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and approximately 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year. Global food directives for international food initiatives include CODEX, ISO (International Standards Organization), and the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).

The U.S. Government has implemented various food safety programs, from Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) to FSMA in order to identify and correct potential contamination in the food supply. In fact, one of the primary focuses of FSMA is preventive action based on risk assessment.

The food landscape has changed significantly, especially over the past decade, as consumers demand year-round fresh fruits, vegetables and juices, along with more exotic foods. The fact that U.S. food is globally sourced has resulted in numerous challenges in quality assurance, shipping, traceability, labeling, storage, blending, testing, and reporting.

Use LIMS to track and manage information in a relational SQL Server LIMS database
Use LIMS to track and manage information in a relational SQL Server LIMS database. (Click to enlarge)

For example, upon reading the labeling on an apple juice can, it is not uncommon to learn the juice has been possibly sourced from numerous countries including the United States, China, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and many other countries from the European Union. Oftentimes, labels state that ingredients may come from some of the countries listed, but it does not specify what percentage comes from each country or exactly from which country the product was sourced. Figure 2 shows how LIMS can track and manage this information in a relational SQL Server LIMS database.

A similar scenario is true for tracking hamburger meat: The meat that was used to make burgers can come from multiple ranches and hundreds of cows. Many consumers don’t understand why their food/beverage is blended in large ton batches, and producers want to reach the required final product specifications, while offering a consistent product and experience to the consumer. Blending has become commonplace in the food industry, and it makes traceability much more challenging. The same is true in blending different meats, for example regulators have found pork in products marked 100% beef, this has led to the use of molecular tests to determine if meat has been adulterated.

FSMA and Traceability

FSMA focuses on a preventive approach rather than reaction and response to foodborne outbreaks. A central focus is on traceability, involving a complete understanding of the complex food chain and conducting testing at the key control points that can introduce contamination. It is important to understand the source of all the raw ingredients that make up a final product as well as the details of where they are sourced, the CoA (Certificate of Analysis) report, other test results, and all associated documentation. These elements are especially important, because each region of the world has different approved testing methods and is challenged with different potential contaminants and processes. As a result, food manufacturers must manage a significant amount of information on all raw materials that they receive, along with the associated paperwork, which includes the CoA, confirmatory test data, and all plant, production and final product test data.

Case example. As operations scale, so does the testing. In order to manage all the testing, most laboratories turn to LIMS and laboratory automation to manage high throughput screening. A client that was performing nearly 1,000 Listeria tests per day was using an automated microbiological screening platform to complete this testing. They were struggling to hire more resources to manage and run the instrument, as the time was short and the increased sample volume was imminent. The goal was to automate testing from the nine plants that were submitting samples to the main laboratory, such that the entire process could be automated from the laboratory knowing how many samples were coming from each plant and from deploying pre-configured worklists to upload to the instruments. The instruments would then run the samples and send the result back into the LIMS. This integration alone saved more than six hours per day. In addition, the electronic data transfer was fast and error-free, and since the data was imported into the LIMS, any positives were automatically flagged in real time. This approach allows immediate action.

In addition, all data from shelf life studies and additional testing on the food product (i.e., pesticide testing, environmental testing for Listeria sp., mold, yeast, etc., formulations, and blending) can be managed in the LIMS, one centralized database.

How LIMS Supports FSMA

Over the years some manufacturers have relied on less-robust tools to manage and maintain testing data, from multiple Excel spreadsheets to paper log books. Challenges with using these tools include data corruptions, data loss, typographical errors, and accidental or malicious data changes. These systems are often costly, especially from a resource standpoint (i.e., data errors, hours spent interacting with the data for calculations, tracking samples, and manual report creation alone). In addition, creating reports for regulating authorities can be time-consuming and because there is no control over changes to the Excel sheets or logbooks, there is typically no audit trail, and because the data is not in the database, querying the data can be very difficult.

A quality LIMS will ensure that the organization is bullet-proof when it comes time for regulatory audits. It also provides a complete and secure solution to manage, track and monitor batches of product from farm to table. LIMS not only helps clients manage their regulatory compliance goals, but it also facilitates communication across the organization and provides laboratory intelligence that gives buyers insight into the best suppliers to purchase from, based on final product specification, consistency and pricing. Managers can also better understand when it is time to outsource testing based on workload data, allowing them to maximize their resources and profitably through more efficient operations. The system also accelerates communication: As soon as testing is completed, reports can be automatically emailed and alerts sent to cell phones, if any issues arise.

When dealing with perishable products, time is of the essence, LIMS save time. Table 1 lists just a few of major benefits of the LIMS in FSMA regulatory compliance.

Process/Requirement Advantage
Sample tracking and management Integrated barcode support (both 1D and 2D), manage all batch data, tests, from raw materials, in process testing to final packaged product testing
21 CFR Part 11 Compliance with electronic signature requirements
CoA Easily, automatically generate the CoA report once testing is completed, validated and approved
Specification Management Manage final product, supplier and customer specifications and pricing
Document Management Link all paperwork to Work Order for ready access and retrieval
Full Chain of Custody Automatically generated and linked to the order
Records data and all paperwork associated with product All paperwork that arrived with the raw ingredients, CoA, and shipping documentation or additional test data
Records all test results Automatic data import from instruments as well as hand entered data
Shelf-life Studies Setup, manage and track all aspects of shelf life studies
Formulations and Blending Manage and track as components and specifications for final product blends, and leverage predictive tools for optimal purchase options from suppliers
Audit Trail Track actions in the system and generate a report of all audits made to any result data
CAPAs (Corrective and Preventative Actions) Track and manage open CAPAs in the LIMS, and tie to testing results for easy management to increase customer satisfaction
Traceability back to the source (farm, country) and  forward to the store that it was shipped to, with key data (lot number, ship date, etc.) Users can view all components and associated test results, along with any notes on the final product, back to the supplier and forward to locations that offer the product to the consumer
Employee Training Manage employee training records and view Standard Operating Procedures online to ensure access to work instruction and provide evidence for audits
Instrument Management Manage all quality control data on the instruments used in the testing, as well as documented calibration data, maintenance, any repairs, or any issues. Users can link the PDF manual in the LIMS
Enterprise integration (ERP, SAP, SCADA, MES, SAS JMP) Data sharing allows users with permissions access to data when they need it, so that they can quickly view and monitor information they need to perform their job. Users can also view data with integrated statistical tools to view trends that may not be readily evident
Table I

A LIMS is a critical tool to the success of food companies. It organizes and securely manages all aspects of food testing, facilitates regulatory compliance, enhances communication within the organization, and maximizes productivity. Many food producers are concerned about protecting their brand and providing a high quality, consistent, and safe product to consumers while operating efficiently and at a profit. An LIMS allows them to meet these goals.

Why Should Food Manufacturers Consider Lab Automation?

By Dr. Christine Paszko
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Food manufacturers that think strategically understand that labor efficiency is a measure of how effectively a workforce completes a task in comparison to industry. Companies frequently access efficiency and other metrics to identify weak points in their operations, with the end goal of enhancing data quality and streamlining costs. This approach has led many food and beverage manufacturers to embrace lean manufacturing and six sigma programs in their organizations. These leaders have a clear understanding that labor is money (or money is stored labor), and money equals margins. Food and beverage manufacturers often acquire several raw materials and convert them into finished products for consumers to purchase. These manufacturers have found that robotics and automation have greatly increased productivity and enhanced product quality while maximizing resources and profitability.

LIMS offer a variety of benefits. Image courtesy of ATL
LIMS offer a variety of benefits. Image courtesy of ATL

Ease Operations with Automation

Analytical testing laboratories within food manufacturing firms leverage LIMS to realize automation savings. LIMS is an acronym for Laboratory Information Management System, which can also be a manual paper/Excel based solution, however, this article will focus on completely automated, computerized, enterprise, software solutions. Manual systems are cumbersome, costly, and lack efficiency.

Just as automation and robotics have transformed the food manufacturing process, intelligent laboratory operations leverage LIMS, because it enables increased quality and faster turnaround, while providing significant cost savings. LIMS are computerized systems that organize, manage and communicate all of the laboratory test data and related information such as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Certificates of Analysis (COAs), final analysis reports, invoices, nutritional labels, formulations and information to support an organization’s operations and meet regulatory compliance goals.

Traditional LIMS facilitate overall laboratory organization, from sample management to test data to final reporting and disposal. LIMS begin with sample management and typically the generation of barcoded labels (of a unique identification number), testing is automatically assigned based on project or sample type (Note: Additional tests can be added or deleted, and ad hoc samples can also be logged). Some laboratories test all raw materials that arrive to confirm acceptance criteria against the COA, in addition to in-process, final product testing and environmental testing. Once samples are logged into the system, worklists are created in the LIMS of the samples to be run and the information is scanned via barcode and sent to the instrument controller. Tests that include associated quality control data are run by loading instruments. Results are electronically imported back into the LIMS from instrumentation (this is the most common and most efficient method). For manual, subjective tests that require interpretation, results must be entered into the LIMS by hand. Managers can also manage and track samples that have been subcontracted to other laboratories (i.e., for testing capabilities that do not exist internally). Once the subcontracted data is submitted back to the laboratory in an electronic format, it can be directly imported into the LIMS, and all data related to the sample is stored in a single, secure database.

Automation significantly reduces cost, enhances quality and provides a means to rapidly scale production. This image shows a cheese processing plant. Image courtesy of ATL
Automation significantly reduces cost, enhances quality and provides a means to rapidly scale production. This image shows a cheese processing plant. Image courtesy of ATL

This approach offers a major advantage, especially to global operations, due to the ability to deliver real-time data across an enterprise. End-users can leverage the technology to make intelligent buying decisions based on product specifications of incoming raw materials, customer demand, specification criteria and blending simulations.

Managers can view a variety of metrics, including the number of samples that have been run for a particular product, statistical process control charts, instruments in service for workload management, and supplier performance in any given period. Complete product traceability is possible.

LIMS has evolved to manage many additional functions, such as communications with ERP/SAP systems, shelf life studies, performing skip lot testing, formulations, and field and plant data collection by integration with tablets and smartphones for real-time updates, managing competitive analysis data as well as special projects. A few of the major areas in which LIMS are leveraged include:

  1. Sample management of all testing initiated
  2. Quality assurance (including in process quality checks)
  3. Workflow management (optimization of processes)
  4. Regulatory compliance (FSMA, GFSI, HACCP, FDA)
  5. Specification management, formulations and blending
  6. Dashboards for real-time updates (in a single site or across operations)
  7. Customer relationship management (organizing and responding to customer inquiries)
  8. Reporting (COA, final analysis and invoice reports)
  9. Inventory management and product release

Enabling Standardization

A LIMS not only enhances communication across a laboratory, but also across a global organization with multiple sites, ensuring effective cooperation and relationships between suppliers, production and customers. A LIMS promotes standardization in global firms and gives management teams real-time data access from site to site, so that data is readily available for better management and resource allocation decisions. Standardization makes business and financial sense, as organizations can realize cost savings in buying testing equipment and supplies in larger quantities, exchanging staff to different sites (potentially reducing training costs), and managing a user-friendly, single secure database that supports localization (each site can implement LIMS in its native language). Standardization does not mean that systems must be ridged; each facility can leverage its own unique workflows and terminology while saving data to a standard database format.

A LIMS can manage an entire organization’s laboratory SOPs or work instructions, and documents associated with the following:

  • Laboratory testing
  • Assets
  • Inventory
  • Laboratory chemicals
  • Supplies
  • Formulations
  • Blending
  • Automated calculations
  • Customer interactions
  • Employee training records
  • Laboratory instrumentation
  • Purchase orders
  • Sample storage
  • Reporting
  • Invoicing
  • Facilitating governmental laboratory compliance requirements

Today, LIMS’ have expanded to manage all aspects of laboratory operations and have significant overlap with ERP, SAP systems and other enterprise solutions. The goal is to move away from multiple separate databases and distinct islands to one centralized data management solution. Amazingly, some laboratories do not make the investment in new LIMS technology and continue use in-house created database systems, manual paper systems and Excel spreadsheets (or a combination of these systems) to manage portions of the critical product testing data. These systems are often costly, labor intensive, subject to data loss, and difficult to manage and maintain.

A LIMS ensures that analytical resources have been best utilized to maximize productivity and efficiency to generate high-quality data to support operations, while facilitating regulatory compliance goals. Organizations that embrace quality often leverage technology such as LIMS, and typically hold ISO 17025 certification and embrace six sigma, lean manufacturing and other best practices.

Robotics has transformed food manufacturing to allow greater volumes of final product to be produced, with an emphasis on speed, standardization, consistent product quality and volume, with increased efficiency and cost savings. LIMS’ have transformed the manufacturing process and the laboratory analysis process from raw material testing to in-process /environmental testing and finished product testing. For example, on-line monitors can feed data into an LIMS (i.e. flow, temperature from freezers or incubators), and if there are any alarming data points, instant notification is provided to the team via email or a phone call. This rapid response saves time for a corrective action to be put into place. Within the laboratory, if a shelf life study is underway and the incubator fails, an alert can be sent after one out-of-range temperature measurement, allowing the problem to be corrected and the study saved, versus having to start over.

The analytical testing group in any food and beverage testing facility generates hundreds, thousands, even millions of data points a year. They gather data on raw materials (based on COAs), in-process manufacturing (quality checks, statistical process control and specification confirmation), environmental monitoring, and finished product testing as well as performing competitive analysis. These are some of the main areas that are impacted by sample collection and testing. LIMS and laboratory automation have transformed the way that data is collected, monitored and analyzed. Today’s LIMS’ are based on modern technology, providing a valuable tool to ensure that product is within specification, and collected and disseminated in real-time to improve efficiency, reduce costs, increase profitability.