Internal Testing vs Third-Party
Testing Considerations Revisted
Seeking a Quality Lab Provider
Food Safety and Laboratory Testing During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Several years ago, I authored an article for a national food safety publication. The article focused on the comparison of outsourcing testing versus conducting testing in an in-house lab and included many factors to evaluate and consider. With the changes, challenges, and uncertainty regarding the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, I thought it might be a good time to revisit those initial discussion topics and update them with current considerations.
One of the key points made in the initial article was that outsourcing may not be for everyone, and that still holds true today. However, as I referenced, it is also very common for companies with internal laboratory facilities to employ independent laboratories for a significant part of their testing needs. We have seen this outsourcing trend continue to grow based on a variety of factors including, but not limited to:
- Increased scrutiny associated with running ISO-accredited laboratories through the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)
- Ever-changing and enhanced customer specifications
- The desire of food companies to focus on their core competency of producing food, while ensuring the quality and veracity of their testing results through third-party partners
Key Considerations Remain
When reviewing testing needs, some of the key considerations for companies have not changed:
- What is the level of variability in your sample flow (e.g., seasonality)?
- Do you manufacture a wide variety of products, ingredients, and tests to perform?
- Is there a need for capital-intensive tests (e.g., high-performance liquid chromatography)?
- Are you geographically located near a third-party partner?
- What is the potential risk associated with in house pathogen testing for your products, environment or ingredients?
- Do you have the talent available to adequately staff and manage an in house lab?
- Are your major customers requiring the use of an outside lab for certificates of analysis?
- Does your company have uncertain business plans (e.g., possible downsizing, plant consolidations, etc.)?
- How do you verify the accuracy and quality of your internal lab’s test results and established proof of competency?
- What process is followed to keep your lab current to meet FSMA requirements?
- What is involved in overseeing operations, keeping technologies, calibrations and training current?
- Are you comfortable with the use of laboratory positive control samples in your plant?
- What is your defined system for preventive/corrective action?
- How do you handle advanced client communications?
While the questions and considerations above continue to be fundamental factors when evaluating food safety/laboratory options, it’s important to consider how these relate to potential challenges associated with COVID-19 adjustments. What do you see as consistent themes during these challenging times? Now that you have read the question and taken a few moments to reflect on your answer, let me share a couple of themes that have stood out to me:
- Having personnel available to do the work correctly
- Changes in product manufacturing flow, packaging, customer base, etc., and as such, testing and regulatory needs may change
Beyond a Test Result
The things that have not changed during this time are the need for your laboratory provider, internal or external, to continue meeting regulatory requirements, and the fact that chemical and microbiological testing will remain an important part of food safety programs industrywide. Because of these needs and requirements, it is imperative that your laboratory have world-class testing capabilities to assist you as you navigate the changes to your process and customer requirements. Additionally, as I noted in the initial article, your laboratory should offer far more than analytical results. For instance, consider other areas in which your contract laboratory can assist you beyond testing, such as:
- Mapping of environmental programs and results
- Label review for new products and/or packages being transitioned from food service to retail
- Sensory analysis of new product formulations or package sizes
- Desktop consulting or online training to review programs and processes
True food safety partnerships include more than just providing a test result. They include the ability and expertise needed to provide you the peace of mind to focus on your day-to-day business needs and producing product, while your partner provides the experience and resources to help you meet client needs without diluting your focus on your key competencies.