LIMS FAQ:What is the importance of a food and beverage testing laboratory to society?
Title: What is the importance of a food and beverage testing laboratory to society?
Author for citation: Shawn E. Douglas
License for content: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International
Publication date: August 2022
Humanity's focus on food and water security remains one of its most important tasks in the twenty-first century, particularly in the face of growing concerns about the negative ramifications of climate change. Without a continued focus on food and water security—including all the quality and safety assurances that come with it—many elements of the world population face a grim reality of insufficient food, limited access to clean water, and malnutrition.
In contrast to these stark realities (which are just as much about agricultural practices, societal and governmental practices, public health practices, and human approaches to climate change), much has admittedly improved in the way we ensure food and beverage security and safety, at least compared to times prior to the twentieth century. In fact, the laboratory and the science practiced in it have arguably played a significant role in better ensuring safe, quality food and beverages in our lives. However, the laboratory is only one part of an otherwise "complex adaptive system of governance" that is food safety, which in turn is only one part of a larger system dedicated to food and water security.
This brief topical article will present information that highlights how society has benefited from a food and beverage testing laboratory. It will turn to history, statistical data, and description of the roles such labs play, in the end demonstrating such labs' overall value.
History of food and beverage testing and regulation
The history of laboratory-based food and beverage tasting is a scattered one, with little being documented about foodborne illness and food safety until the nineteenth century. With a better understanding of bacteria and their relationship to disease, however, more was being said about the topic by the mid- to late-1800s. In the U.S. Northeast during the 1860s, recognition was growing concerning the threat that tainted milk originating from dairy cows being singularly fed distillery byproducts had to human health. Not only was the milk generated from such cows thin and low in nutrients, but it also was adulterated with questionable substances to give it a better appearance. This resulted in many children and adults falling ill or dying from consuming the product. The efforts of Dr. Henry Coit and others in the late 1800s to develop a certification program for milk—which included laboratory testing among other activities—eventually helped plant the seeds for a national food and beverage safety program.
Roughly around the same time, during the 1880s, Britain saw more public health awareness develop in regards to digestive bacterial infections. "As deadlier infections retreated," argues social historian Anne Hardy, "food poisoning became an increasing concern of local and national health authorities, who sought both to raise public awareness of the condition as illness, and to regulate and improve food handling practices." This led to further efforts from public health laboratories to promote the reporting and tracking of food poisoning cases by the 1940s.
With the recognition of bacterial and other forms of contamination occurring in foodstuffs, beverages, and ingredients, as well as growing acknowledgement of the detrimental health effects of dangerous adulterations with toxic substances, additional progress was made in the realm of regulating and testing produced food and beverages. Events of interest along the way include:
- By 1880, the first of many municipal laboratories dedicated to testing food and beverage adulteration came into use in France. A focus was made on watered-down wines early on, but Frances's municipal food safety labs quickly began addressing other foods, beverages, and ingredients.
- The Pure Food and Drug Act and Beef Inspection Act were passed in 1906 in response to food quality issues in packing plants, on farms, and other areas of food production.
- In 1927, the U.S. Food, Drug, and Insecticide Administration (shortened to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA not long after) was formed to better enforce the Pure Food Act.
- By 1945, Clostridium perfringens was being identified as a common cause of foodborne illness, and today it is recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as one of the top five provocateurs of foodborne illness.
- The seeds of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) quality control method were planted in 1959, when Pillsbury began working with NASA to ensure safe foods for astronauts. The value of Pillsbury and NASA's methodology became apparent to the food and beverage industry by 1972, and other organizations began adopting HACCP for food safety.
- The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966 brought standardized, more accurate labeling to food and beverages.
- The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 mandated HACCP for most food processors and improved pesticide level calculations.
- FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was enacted in 2011, giving the FDA more enforcement authority and tools to improve the backbone of the U.S. food and water supply.
- In December 2021, the Laboratory Accreditation for Analyses of Foods (LAAF) amendment to the FSMA was approved, providing for an accreditation program for laboratories wanting to further participate in the critical role of ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply through the "testing of food in certain circumstances."
This progression of scientific discovery and regulatory action has surely managed to reduce risks to U.S. food and beverage consumers, though not without complication and complexity. As the U.S. population has grown over the past 100 years, it has become more difficult to have a sufficient number of inspectors, for example, to examine every production facility or farm and all they do, necessitating a risk assessment approach to food and beverage safety. As such, the laboratory is undoubtedly a critical component of risk-based safety assessments of food and beverage products.
According to 2011 estimates by the CDC, "48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States." As of August 2022, the CDC has yet to issue revised estimates of these numbers.
On a more global scale, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in ten people worldwide fall ill to consuming contaminated food.
A 2013 Advantage Business Media survey of food processors "found 32.5 percent use both in-house and outside labs; 28.9 percent use only in-house testing, and 24.1 percent send samples only to outside labs. And 14.5 percent said they don’t require testing." Additional statistics from that survey revealed that 70.6 percent of respondents were testing for quality, 57.7 percent were testing for consistency, and 56.5 percent were conducting food safety tests for pathogens. Some 29.4 percent were testing for packaging accuracy claims, and 23.5 percent were testing for the presence of reported and unreported allergens. A 2017 survey by Food Safety Magazine saw the number of labs sending samples only to outside labs increase compared to the 2013 survey, with 28% of respondents saying they outsourced all samples.
A 2013 Strategic Consulting, Inc. report found that third-party contract testing laboratories were increasingly being used for food quality and safety testing by producers, with worldwide revenue for those contract labs expected to hit $3 billion. The report cited the rise in third-party labs was "in response to the growing complexity, cost, and volume of testing required by food producers and retailers."
The USDA estimated in 2017 that some "7,500 food safety inspection personnel go to work in more than 6,000 regulated food facilities and 122 ports of entry," and "[a]nother 2,000 food safety professionals go to work in three public health laboratories, 10 district offices, and our headquarters office. These employees run test results, dispatch outbreak investigators, and unpack data to reveal telling trends and inform proactive, prevention-based policies that will lead to safer food and fewer illnesses."
The CDC's FoodNet surveillance program conducts "active surveillance; surveys of laboratories, physicians, and the general population; and population-based epidemiologic studies" for roughly 15 percent of the U.S. population.
The roles a laboratory may have in the food and beverage industry
Laboratories directly and tangentially related to the food and beverage industry play a number of roles, depending on where they're situated. These roles prove to be important in the greater scheme of industry activities, in turn providing a number of benefits to society. As gleaned from prior discussion, as well as other sources, these laboratory roles can be broadly broken into three categories: research and development (R&D), pre-manufacturing and manufacturing, and post-production regulation and security.
The laboratory participating in this role is performing one or more tasks that relate to the development or improvement of a food, beverage, additive, or spice. This often leads to a commercial formulation, which has the "necessary details required to scale and produce your [food or beverage] in a consistent, efficient, and safe manner." Even packaging solutions are targets for R&D labs in the food and beverage industry.
The R&D lab may appear outside the manufacturing facility proper, but not necessarily always. Some manufacturing companies may have an entire research complex dedicated to creating and improving some aspect of their products. Other companies may take their R&D to a third-party lab dedicated to conducting development and formulation activities for manufacturers. Food and beverage research activities aren't confined to manufacturers, however. Some higher education institutions, such as the Hartwick College Center for Craft Food & Beverage, provide laboratory-based research and development opportunities to students engaging in work-study programs, often in partnership with some other commercial enterprise.
Food and beverage R&D labs may work towards improving packaging, testing a product's shelf life (i.e., stability), conducting flavor or aroma analysis, developing and innovating foodstuffs, reformulating existing products, and researching genetic modifications to ingredients. The end user benefits by having fresher foods that are culinarily pleasing, more nutritious, and safer for consumption.
Pre-manufacturing and manufacturing roles
The laboratory participating in these roles is performing one or more tasks that relate to the preparative (i.e., pre-manufacturing) or quality control (i.e., manufacturing) tasks of food and beverage production. Preparative work such as caloric and nutritional analysis may happen in a variety of contexts, from inside the R&D lab to in the manufacturing facility's lab itself, if it has one. This work may also be conducted by a third-party lab, or it may even be performed using non-laboratory techniques such as food composition database analysis. However, caloric and nutritional testing—in conjunction with meeting regulatory-driven labeling requirements—still lands firmly in the role of pre-manufacturing activity, definitively after commercial formulation and packing requirements have been finalized but before the formal manufacturing process has begun. Allergen testing works in a similar fashion, though the manufacturer ideally uses a full set of best practices for food allergen management and testing, from confirming allergens (and correct labeling) from ingredients ordered to performing final production line cleanup (e.g., when a new allergen-free commercial formulation is being made or an unintended contamination has occurred). The end user benefits from these caloric, nutritional, and allergen analysis activities not only through the provision of a more transparent window into what they are consuming; these laboratory activities also can better ensure end users' attempts at maintaining their own good health.
Finally, laboratory testing can also be found along the production chain in the manufacturing facility itself. This type of testing is couched as quality control testing, primarily, or as quality assurance, secondarily. Some of this analysis may be integrated into the production workflow, as with x-ray inspection. Fluorescence sensing technologies are also useful for contaminant testing, though they are largely limited to laboratory use, with hopes they may become more relevant for inspection at the point of production. This move to "novel, rapid, and non-destructive" methods of testing both in the lab and in the production facility appears to be a growing trend, loosening the concept of the "quality control laboratory" as an entity in the production facility. Regardless of analytical location, the quality control lab provides benefits to society by being a critical component of an overall quality management system that better ensures the safety of those consuming the final product.
Post-production regulation and security roles
The laboratory participating in these roles is performing one or more tasks that relate to the post-production examination of foods and beverages for regulatory, security, or accreditation purposes. This type of testing examines raw ingredients, consumable products, and packaging found not only in a production facility but also in locations such as shipping docks, farms, grocery stores, and more. Labs are often third parties accrediting a producer to a set of standards, ensuring regulatory compliance, conducting authenticity and adulteration testing, conducting security checks at borders, and applying contamination testing as part of an overall effort to track down the source of a foodborne illness. In the last case, the lab may not even be a traditional "food and beverage" lab but rather a public health laboratory, highlighting in full the human safety elements associated with our food and water supplies. The human safety element is also seen in government labs such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) Field Service Laboratories, which "coordinate and conduct laboratory analytical services in support of the Agency's farm-to-table strategies in the disciplines of chemistry, microbiology, and pathology for food safety in meat, poultry, and egg products." In addition to ensuring a safer food supply, society also benefits from these and similar labs by better holding producers legally accountable for their production methods and obligations.
This brief topical article sought to answer "what is the importance of a food and beverage testing laboratory to society?" It notes that in particular, these types of labs are at the forefront of ensuring a safer, more reliable food supply. History has shown that these labs have played an important role in society for well over 100 years, enabling further improvements in food and beverage production. While climate change and wars stand to disrupt food and water security, food and beverage laboratories exists to help limit at least a few effects of those disruptions. Through R&D efforts, for example, labs can develop better means for fortifying the food and beverages we consume or develop more resilient staple crops to improve yields (though it can be argued this is more the domain of an agriculture lab, highlighting the crossover of the agriculture industry with the food and beverage industry). However, the food and beverage lab plays a role beyond R&D, that of ensuring quality in not only the product itself but also accuracy in the labels applied to the product. They also act as a strong component of ensuring accreditation criteria are met, regulations are followed, and dangerous ingredients and foods are not imported into the country. In the end, these labs are a critical component of a larger risk assessment framework, one that can't supply safety inspectors for every producer, farm, or import channel. As such, food and beverage labs fill an important gap in this risk assessment framework, better ensuring the overall safety and security of our food and water supply.
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- ↑ "FSIS Laboratories". Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. 26 April 2019. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/science-data/laboratories-procedures/fsis-laboratories. Retrieved 13 August 2022.
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- ↑ Zenda, Tinashe; Liu, Songtao; Dong, Anyi; Duan, Huijun (29 May 2021). "Advances in Cereal Crop Genomics for Resilience under Climate Change" (in en). Life 11 (6): 502. doi:10.3390/life11060502. ISSN 2075-1729. PMC PMC8228855. PMID 34072447. https://www.mdpi.com/2075-1729/11/6/502.