Perspective on food safety laboratories

Thermo Fisher Scientific
Wednesday, 06 October, 2010

The potential for food contamination, economic adulteration, and other related food safety issues are leading to an increased awareness of the important role that food testing laboratories play in ensuring the safety and quality of our food supply. The requirements for sophisticated instruments and well-trained, experienced analysts in food safety laboratories are essential factors in making certain that food is safe from chemical contamination.

Food testing laboratories have traditionally been separated into three categories: in-house, contract testing and public laboratories. However, in response to emerging food scares, a new and unique dedicated food safety laboratory has been set up by Thermo Fisher Scientific; the goal is to respond quickly to food contamination emergencies such as the Mexican Gulf oil spill.

The Food Safety Response Center (FSRC) is a dedicated food safety lab that constantly monitors for contamination crises through expert sources, developing testing methods and providing protocols to guide analysts in the public and private sector. The FSRC is not a contract testing lab and does not accept samples on a random basis. The lab is a resource and support mechanism in times of crisis.

This article will provide an overview of types of food testing laboratories and the influencing factors behind selecting food testing facilities. The article will also use the example of the FSRC to reinforce the need for reliable food testing facilities to respond to potential threats.

Food safety laboratories

There are many criteria for companies producing or distributing food products to consider when selecting a source for food safety testing. These criteria are often shaped by the situation of the company making the selection.

For example, a small company that needs only limited testing may make its selection on the basis of cost per sample and type of testing required. Therefore, some small businesses may benefit financially from securing the services of a contract laboratory rather than investing in setting up internal testing facilities. Additional benefits of outsourcing food testing, for companies of all sizes, include quality and accuracy of testing, turnaround time, range of analytical services provided, expertise and benefits of using a lab which is certified to national or international standards of compliance.

For all laboratories, analysing and testing for potential food contaminants requires specialised instrumentation and methodological expertise to perform analyses and produce rapid results. The need for the quality and consistency of laboratory equipment and techniques also contributes to the decision process. Contract laboratories perform testing on one or more components of projects for external clients. The ownership of the project resides with the client and the work of the contract lab typically represents just one portion of the overall project.

However, by combining highly skilled, professional staff with state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, contract laboratories are able to provide companies in the food industry with highly accurate and reliable rapid testing services.

Within the food industry, quickly obtaining testing results is essential because of the perishable nature of food, and the batch processing of many food products. Contract labs also offer unbiased results, as they typically have no stake in the findings nor a financial interest in the samples being tested. As contract laboratories undertake a wide range of analyses using various techniques, they offer a high level of expertise whether identifying unknown samples or conducting routine food testing. This means that companies employing their services benefit from the reliable and speedy testing as well as availability of advice from the labs in situations where in-house experience is lacking.

Government and research laboratories

Laboratories in the public sector are the vanguard of public health on a very broad scale. Because of their outreach, they are typically the front line in a crisis or major health issue. Besides short-term reaction, they also have many long-term tests and studies in such areas as diet, obesity, nutrition and food fraud.

Many thought leaders are found in universities and colleges and are focused on a specific area of food safety. From a macro view, the balance of public and private research and capacity for response to a crisis has served the public interest. Going one step further, a lab has been created which can support existing structures in place in times of crisis with rapid method development.

Food Safety Response Center

Developed in response to an increasing frequency of food crises, the Thermo Fisher Scientific Food Safety Response Center (FSRC) is designed to respond rapidly to chemical contamination crises such as the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The FSRC is staffed with a team of experienced food chemists with diverse backgrounds in areas of contamination as well as expertise in analytical method development, allowing them to be actively responsive when such crises occur. Strategically located in Dreieich, Germany, the Center is also in close proximity to Europe’s leading food safety research institutions and houses state-of-the-art analytical instruments to enable rapid method development for chemical contamination in food. As a result, the FSRC is able to respond quickly to food threats, typically cutting the delivery time of analytical methods from six to eight weeks to around three.

The FSRC’s method development capability aids government regulatory bodies, research institutes, independent test labs and private companies. Supporting global food safety as an investment in developing food safety protocol, the FSRC is raising awareness and gaining expertise in order to benefit the industry. The FSRC contains two laboratories, a sample preparation area and an instrument lab, to speed workflows and reduce the sample interference that often occurs when transferring samples from different testing laboratories.

It is also imperative for analysts working in food testing laboratories to have a full knowledge of the food industry and keep up to date with potential threats. The 2008 deliberate adulteration of milk with melamine helped the food industry realise that researchers were mainly undertaking targeted screening. Laboratories need to be set up to undertake both targeted and non-targeted analysis in order to identify all potential contaminants in food samples. The melamine crisis highlighted that food companies need access to methods and instrumentation that allow for the identification of very small molecules, even in the presence of interference, and reinforced the need for analysts to keep ahead of potential food safety threats.


As food safety issues continue to make news, food hygiene and the role of testing laboratories will become even more essential. When choosing a testing laboratory it is important for companies to recognise that there is no one solution to meet all requirements. Companies should choose a laboratory based on individual requirements and financial capabilities as well as considering the potential investment in expert training of personnel with a broad range of analytical expertise, maintenance of equipment, standardisation and adoption of analytical methods, verification of results, quality control measurement procedures and certifications.

As the majority of food scares cannot be anticipated before they occur, it is essential that methods are developed quickly when threats occur. In the wake of recent food safety scares it has become clear that existing infrastructures can be slow to respond. It is therefore essential that laboratories equip scientists with strategies for tackling contamination where it occurs in the food chain, providing greater knowledge about foodborne disease and actions to take in future crises. It is also necessary to recognise that surveillance of food should be given high priority in the development of food safety equipment and protocol, to ensure laboratories are equipped to anticipate emerging risks.

By Gerry Broski, Food Safety Marketing Director, Thermo Fisher Scientific

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