LIMS FAQ:What types of testing occur within a food and beverage laboratory?
Title: What types of testing occur within a food and beverage laboratory?
Author for citation: Shawn E. Douglas
License for content: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International
Publication date: August 2022
The food and beverage laboratory is integral to helping improve and secure our food supply and the consumable products that get made from it. The lab plays a number of roles within the overall food and beverage industry, including within the research and development (R&D), pre-manufacturing and manufacturing, and post-production regulation and security phases of food and beverage production. It's within these roles a multi-disciplinary approach to testing occurs, depending on the role played by the lab. However, regardless of role, all testing boils down to a means of better ensuring safer, more nutritious and delicious foods and beverages.
This brief topical article will borrow from previous discussion about food and beverage laboratories and dive deeper into the types of testing taking place within the three primary roles such labs have within the industry.
Broad testing within the industry
Food and beverage laboratories tap into numerous scientific disciplines for the work they do. Among the various roles these labs serve, disciplines such as biochemistry, biotechnology, chemical engineering, chemistry, fermentation science, materials science, microbiology, molecular gastronomy, and nutrition and food science are applied. As such, a diverse skillset is typically required by the food and beverage scientist, requiring not only hard skills in microbiology, biochemistry, and fermentation, but also the flexibility and nimbleness to apply those skills to an industry with a rapidly changing consumer dynamic.
Although slightly dated, past surveys of food processors have largely shown a majority of testing occurring within the processor facility, with outsourcing to a third-party lab becoming a growing trend. 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," with 14.5 percent saying they didn’t require testing. A 2017 survey by Strategic Consulting, Inc., published in 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. Similar surveys in 2020 reinforced the view that outsourcing was a growing trend, with more non-pathogen testing getting outsourced along with pathogen testing.
This increase may not be surprising given reports that third-party contract testing laboratories were increasingly being used for food quality and safety testing. A 2013 Strategic Consulting, Inc. 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." Another concern that may be driving outsourcing of at least microbial laboratory testing is regulatory pressure concerning pathogenic organisms in the production facility, and by extension out of the internally housed lab, though there may be a strong preference to contract with third-party labs in close proximity to the plant to better ensure desired turnaround times. However, veterans in the food and beverage industry may view such outsourcing concerns as minimal, particularly when a facility's processes and quality mechanisms are appropriately reviewed, maintained, and enforced.
In regards to what kind of testing has historically been occurring in the industry, we turn back to that 2013 Advantage Business Media survey. 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. More recent survey data is difficult to find, so it's not clear how these numbers compare to the realities of 2022. We can say that at least as of 2020, pathogen testing remained vital, with testing of Listeria proving a fast-growing subcategory of pathogen testing, primarily for environmental monitoring of the production facility. A 2020 survey by Strategic Consulting, Inc. further indicated that the volume of microbiology testing is growing at roughly five percent, while pathogen testing volume is growing at roughly six to seven percent, adding that "outsourcing is driving the volume of tests being sent to commercial labs by as much as 10 percent." The same surveyor increased those percentages the following year.
As processors outsource their samples, PCR seems to be more frequently selected as the analytical method used than it was when the samples were analyzed in-plant. This possibility certainly makes sense. PCR requires expensive instrumentation and technical expertise to analyze samples properly. Every commercial lab will have a level of analyst capabilities and infrastructure that allows them to use PCR. Commercial labs will also have a high incentive to recommend the use of PCR to optimize the throughput of their instruments.
Testing within the primary roles of a food and beverage lab
The type of testing occurring within a food and beverage lab will vary depending on the role it plays within the larger framework of industry needs. The following subsections examine the three primary roles of these labs and the testing required to meet their goals.
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. It may even conduct testing slightly outside its typical purvey, as with the conjunction of materials science with food bioengineering. The following types of activities within R&D will typically involve some level of laboratory participation.
Overall food innovation and development: International Center for Food Chain and Network Research's Schiefer and Deiters note that the food and beverage industry as a whole faces a number of significant challenges today, including economic and noneconomic changes, consumer lifestyle changes, global increases in food consumption, degradation and loss of cropland, and societal changes to attitudes concerning sustainability. These types of challenges require a food and beverage industry that is more agile and innovative, one that is making impactful breakthroughs to improve the quality and range of products, increasing the capacity for making products, replacing outdated products, developing more flexible or sustainable processes, and improving health and safety. Given the broad scope of efforts involved, the laboratory services for such impactful R&D efforts can vary widely depending on the goal. Improving the flavor of plant-based meat substitutes, for example, comes with somewhat different analytical techniques and disciplinary requirements than say improving the three-dimensional food printing of said meat substitutes.
Aroma/flavor analysis and formulation: Here the concept of "sensomic" study, an approach to describing the sensory properties of foodstuffs at a molecular level, plays an increasingly important role. This involves analytical techniques such as gas chromatography, liquid chromatography, and spectrophotometry, used in conjunction with chemometric data analysis to isolate and act upon volatile compounds from one or more samples. Aroma tends to be a more difficult concept to tackle as we've identified more than a 1,000 volatile compounds in a singular substance such as cooked meats and coffees (though typically only a small number of those compounds make a significant contribution to the overall perceived aroma), which in turn adds further complexity to overall perception of flavor. This gives laboratory researchers formulating a product for a distinct flavor profile more than a few challenges in, for example, putting together a successful mapping of chemical composition to flavor perception.
Genetic modification for improved yields and nutrition: The preface of Westin Carrillo's book Biotechnology and Food Production summarizes this activity well. "Biotechnology can be used in many ways to achieve higher yields; for example, by improving flowering capacity and increasing photosynthesis or the intake of nutritive elements," he says. "In the long term, genetic engineering will also help to increase production of the most valuable components of specific crops" like cassava and rice, as well as modify their amino acid composition in order to increase their otherwise deficient nutritional value. As this suggests, however, knowledge and skills in genetic analysis, modification, and expression are required, in turn requiring the equipment and skill for genetic sequencing, microbial transformation, genetic use restriction technology (GURT), Northern or Western blotting, reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), etc. Admittedly, this type of R&D may fall more firmly in the hands of agriculture businesses than food and beverage businesses themselves. However, a few food and beverage business may bring their genetic modification R&D efforts in-house as an overall effort to improve a majority of its products.
Nutritional reformulation: As various scientific understandings improve and societies shift their desires and perspectives towards processed foods, so too do the formulations used by food processors. Food scientist and author Maurice O'Sullivan describes four primary drivers for these types of reformulations:
- Society improves its scientific understanding of the major consumption-related diseases affecting human civilization, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.
- The population at large becomes more aware of scientists' greater understanding of consumption-related diseases.
- Food producers inevitably see reason to make changes to their foods based on both the scientific and customer-based factors that affect sales of the producers' products.
- Government further provides incentive to the producer to modify their product, through industry collaboration or outright regulation and enforcement activities.
O'Sullivan argues that the three most significant components of food that need to be modified are salt, fat, and sugar. Balancing these in reformulations is indeed challenging for chemical, sensory, and other reasons. Adjusting salt levels, for example, requires chemical knowledge about salt reduction's effects on meat's shelf life and what substitutes or additives can be used to balance out the reduced salt content. As such, reformulation requires a broad array of analytical techniques and industry knowledge, varying based upon the component sought out for change.
Stability, cycle, and challenge testing: As hinted at in the prior subsection, salt plays an important role in the shelf life of meats and other foodstuffs. However, it also can be a leading contributor to cardiovascular complications. Finding a balance between a more nutritious product and a more shelf-stable product proves to be quite tricky. This is one of several conundrums the stability testing laboratory faces in the food and beverage industry. Multiple deteriorative catalysts can influence the shelf life of a product, from microbiological contaminants and chemical deterioration to storage conditions and the packaging itself. As such, there are multiple approaches to those catalysts, from introducing additives to improving the packaging. The analytical techniques applied in stability, cycle, and challenge testing will vary based on, to a large degree, the product matrix and its chemical composition. Microbiological testing is sure to be involved, particularly in challenge testing, which simulates what could happen to a product if contaminated by a microorganism and placed in a representative storage condition. Calorimetry, spectrophotometry, spectroscopy, and hyperspectral imaging can be used to properly assess color, which has been shown to be a good gauge of food quality. Other test types that may be used include water content, texture, viscosity, dispersibility, glass transition, and gas chromatography.
Packaging analysis and extractable and leachable testing: Materials that contact food and beverages receive special regulatory consideration in various parts of the world. This includes alloys, bioplastics, can coatings, glass, metals, regenerated cellulose materials, paper, paperboard, plastics, printing inks, rubber, textiles, waxes, and woods. As such, attempting to break new ground in food and beverage packaging development can be a tricky matter. Concerns of chemicals and elements that can be extracted or leach into food contact materials add another layer of complexity to developing and choosing packaging materials for foods and beverages. This requires extractable and leachable testing at various phases of product development to ensure the packaging selected during formulation is safe and effective. Extractable and leachable testing for packaging could involve a number of techniques ranging from gas and liquid chromatography to ion chromatography and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.
Pre-manufacturing and manufacturing roles
The laboratory participating in this role 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. The following types of activities within the pre-manufacturing and manufacturing stages will typically involve some level of laboratory participation.
Allergen, calorie, and nutrition testing: From label accuracy to consumer safety, this type of testing is critical to food and beverage manufacturers. Caloric and nutritional testing—in conjunction with meeting regulation-driven labeling requirements—lands firmly in the role of pre-manufacturing activity, most certainly 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). This role will usually require laboratory analytical techniques such as calorimetry, laser scanning confocal microscopy, immunoassays, and mass spectrometry. Note, however, that non-laboratory techniques such as food composition database analysis are also used to evaluate the nutritional content of products that aren't heavily processed.
Quality control testing: A food or beverage product's launch success hinges on many variables; if one variable is off, it may very well be rejected by the consumer. Producers invest significantly in a product they believe in, requiring assurances along the way that it will have its best chance of success. The producer will want to ensure high-quality raw ingredients, high-quality equipment, an effective processing layout, and high customer satisfaction. A well-implemented quality management system (QMS) plays a major role in ensuring those requirements, and by extension that includes a type of testing couched as quality control testing, primarily, or as quality assurance testing, secondarily. Many aspects of food and beverage production require high levels of quality, and as such, the type of analytical testing that takes place will vary, sometimes significantly, depending upon the associated risk. Are microbiological, physiological, or chemical risks being managed? These and other questions will determine the laboratory approach to quality, which is in turn ideally reflected in the QMS.
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. The following types of activities within the post-production regulation and security stages will typically involve some level of laboratory participation.
Authenticity and adulteration testing: A variety of local, regional, national, and international entities (e.g., Operation OPSON, E.U. Food Fraud Network, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection) are responsible for detecting and preventing violations of food supply chain laws and regulations across national and international borders, while also collecting evidence for investigation and prosecution. "To support these regulatory and commercial initiatives," says Gerard Downey of the Teagasc Food Research Centre, "research scientists have devoted considerable resources to the development of analytical techniques to identify foods or food ingredients that are in breach of labeling requirement and may consequently be adulterated." Among these techniques are DNA fingerprinting; visible, ultraviolet, infrared, fluorescence emission, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy; mass spectrometry; isotopic analysis; chromatography; polymerase chain reaction; differential scanning calorimetry; chemometric; and "electric nose and tongue" techniques.
Accreditation-led testing: At the end of 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amended the Food Safety Modernization ACT (FSMA) to include the Laboratory Accreditation for Analyses of Foods (LAAF) rule, which mandates laboratory "testing of food in certain circumstances" be performed by LAAF-accredited laboratories. This accreditation is optional and designed for those accreditation bodies and laboratories that have been or are seeking to be be recognized by the FDA as able to LAAF-accredit or be LAAF-accredited for the testing needs of the program. LAAF's "certain circumstances" include not only regulatory-based testing of specific sprouts, eggs, and water, but also certain foods being considered for import into the country. LAAF represents one of several legal and regulatory forces driving accreditation of food and beverage laboratories to a higher standard. It also means greater potential for more testing opportunities for the third-party food and beverage lab wishing to expand into enforcement and security roles. The type of testing they conduct will already mirror those of other roles mentioned prior, but with greater emphasis on meeting stricter testing requirements.
Tangential laboratory work
The following tangential laboratory roles aren't necessarily found directly in the food and beverage facility. However, some level of laboratory work is required in these roles, which intersect with the food and beverage industry in some capacity.
Processing equipment design, monitoring, and sanitation: "Sanitation provides the hygienic conditions required to produce safe food," say Ho and Sandoval in chapter seven of Food Safety Engineering. "Improper sanitation of equipment can potentially introduce hazardous contamination to food and enhance pathogen harborage in the food-processing environment." They note the value of sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs) to the production facility, which dictate sanitation methods and frequencies, monitoring methods, and record keeping methods. These SSOPs are not only driven by good manufacturing practice (GMP) but also appropriate and effective laboratory testing. That foundation of laboratory testing has occurred historically with the experience of food and beverage producers and those engineering and standardizing hygienic solutions for the industry. Combined, these industry and laboratory experiences have driven regulations and standards on hygienic design throughout the world. Broadly speaking, this has culminated in a set of "fundamental hygienic requirements for product contact surfaces and food equipment," ranging from physical and chemical properties such as being nontoxic, corrosion-resistant, and non-absorbent, to mechanical properties such as being durable and smooth, and operational properties such as being cleanable and low-maintenance. In turn, these properties require laboratory and engineering knowledge about metals, alloys, plastics, and many other materials. Here we find multi-disciplinary knowledge in materials science, microbiology, chemistry, physics, and more, implying a corresponding necessity for knowledge on a wide variety of testing methods.
Public health and clinical diagnostics for foodborne illness: While public health and clinical diagnostic laboratories are indeed of a different ilk, they are undoubtedly intertwined with the food and beverage industry. With millions of people getting sick and thousands hospitalized and dying from foodborne diseases each year in the U.S. alone, this fact becomes clearer. When the food and beverage industry's SSOP- and QMS-related activities go awry—knowingly or unknowingly—or if the consumer does not follow proper precautions with the foods and beverages they consume, public health and clinical laboratories may get involved in tracking the source of the pathogen or treating the foodborne illness, respectively. As previous discussion has noted, the interest of public health is at the foundation of the historical and regulatory development of the modern food and beverage industry. In the U.S., the presence of these labs is characterized by efforts such as FoodNet, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program that 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. As a public health tool, FoodNet helps track rates of illness from foodborne pathogens. Through its Diagnostic Laboratory Practices Tool, the public health tool extends into the clinical diagnostics realm, recruiting nearly 700 of those labs to report on their testing practices in regards to select enteric pathogens. From there, one can glean the test methods and specimen submissions being conducted.
This brief topical article sought to answer "what types of testing occur within a food and beverage laboratory?" It notes that in particular, the types of testing can be quite diverse depending on the role the laboratory plays within the industry. Also reflective of the diversity found within the industry is the variety of disciplines practiced in these labs, ranging from microbiology and chemistry to biotechnology and materials science. As the industry continues to evolve and meet ever-shifting consumer needs, the scientists in these labs increasingly need to be highly knowledgeable and able to adapt their work to consumer demand and regulatory requirements. The laboratories in this industry play a mix of obvious and not-so-obvious roles, with R&D and quality control being the most obvious. However, those efforts to ensure the safety and quality of their products extend beyond the confines of the manufacturing facility, to a nation's ports, warehouses, and inland transportation facilities, where enforcement labs ensure the safety and security of incoming foodstuff and ingredients. Of course, there are labs accrediting those labs too, adding another layer of complexity. Finally, there are labs that are not directly found in the manufacturing facilities themselves but rather tangentially to them, such as hygienic equipment engineering labs, public health labs, and clinical diagnostic labs. Together, these labs and their strict test methods serve the populace by better ensuring the safety and security of the foods, beverages, and ingredients we depend on.
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