Douglas Marshall, PhD, chief scientific officer for Eurofins Microbiology and co-founder and director of the Food Safety Institute, discusses some of the main challenges that food manufacturers face when it comes to product quality and how testing labs can help them by providing more than just testing.
Q: What is the role of quality testing before a food product is launched?
A: During the development process there are a lot of tests that are applied to a product or a prototype to make sure that it’s going to perform as expected. The R&D team is going to measure aspects such as color quality, sensory quality, texture quality, and shelf life. All these components come together to determine which formulations are going to perform best under various scenarios. For example, is the product going to be refrigerated, frozen, or stored at room temperature? And what kind of packaging material gives the best shelf life and performance? Ultimately, the products that make it to the market may be far removed from what the original concept was, simply because, during the process, some deficiencies are noted that need to be dealt with.
The purpose of this whole exercise is to zoom in on a product that the science says is going to be the best performer. By doing their homework before the product hits the shelves, food manufacturers can make sure that their products are going to have lasting success. By contrast, when we see people start with a great idea and then try to take shortcuts in the process to rush the product to market, they almost always end up disappointing the consumer and hurting their brand.
Q: What quality issues are particularly challenging to solve in food products?
A: A quite challenging one is unexpected spoilage, in which case we do some investigational testing to identify the type—whether chemical or microbiological, for example—and root cause. Based on that information, we can then recommend potential solutions to the manufacturer.
Another challenging issue that quality testing labs come across quite often is with nutritional labels. The typical case would be a company that is ready to go to market with a specific nutritional label and claim, so they send the lab samples of their product to make sure it meets the nutritional profile. As it often turns out, however, quality tests show that it doesn’t. For example, the level of vitamin C or probiotics is not enough to substantiate the intended claim.
There are many potential reasons for this, and the challenge is to point the manufacturer in the right direction. It could be a problem of quantity, meaning that they simply didn’t add enough of that ingredient or that the quality of the ingredient was lower than expected, resulting, in the case of vitamin C, in fewer active units. Or maybe there were some manufacturing hiccups. For example, they exposed the product to too much heat during manufacturing, which affected the ingredients or the packaging had deficient seals that let oxygen in, causing oxidation.
Q: This year there have been significant shortages in the food ingredients market. How has this affected quality testing?
A: When you use an ingredient that has been manufactured to a certain specification, you expect a performance that meets your needs. If that ingredient is withdrawn from the market for any reason, which could be a problem with the manufacturing process of a large supplier or simply strong competition for that ingredient, you’ll need to test the replacement to make sure that it’s still going to give you the outcome that you expect. But that won’t always happen. After an ingredient substitution, a typical issue that manufacturers face is a shorter shelf life. In this case, you would either have to change formulation, or the process, or simply reduce the shelf life on the package.
Q: What new trends have you seen in food quality testing recently?
A: The typical example of a recent trend would be a customer whose product has an off odor, an aroma that is not what it should be, but they don’t know what it is or what’s causing it. To find out, quality testing labs would use gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and occasionally couple that with GC-olfactometry technique to identify all of the aroma compounds associated with that product. If the manufacturer also sends samples of good products, then the lab can run the same tests and do a comparison. By doing this fingerprinting, it’s usually quite simple to identify what the offending compound or groups of compounds are. From there, we can predict a root cause. It could be a sanitizer that was inappropriately rinsed from an equipment surface; or the manufacturer switched suppliers and the new ingredient carries a flavor component that they didn’t expect.
GC-MS has been used in food quality testing labs for a while, but until recently it was mainly for routine tests. These are tests that food manufacturers do periodically on mature products in the marketplace to verify that their processes are under control; for example, to make sure that ingredients have the desired functional, quality, and safety attributes; that the product is manufactured to specification; or that the nutritional label is accurate. What we’re seeing now is a growing interest in GC-MS for problem solving and prototyping.
Q: What would you say to a food manufacturer to convince them to invest in quality testing?
A: I would tell them that if you are not testing, then you have a blind spot in your process controls. I’ll give you the example of a scenario that we come across quite often. A purchasing department is charged with finding a certain number of containers of an ingredient. They start doing price shopping, sending a call out to brokers on the global marketplace, and end up buying the cheapest product they can find. However, oftentimes there’s a reason why it’s cheap: it’s either of inferior quality, or it’s of questionable safety. At that point, companies that really want to protect their brand are going to do verification testing before they even bring that product into their facility. But those that don’t have the budget to do that kind of testing on a routine basis are the ones that can get burned, both from a quality and from a safety perspective.
Q: What are the main challenges that food quality testing labs are facing and how can they overcome them?
A: There’s tremendous price pressure on food quality labs. There are a lot of laboratories out there that will price their tests very cheaply. My advice for laboratories would be to go beyond simply executing tests. When a sample turns out to be out of spec, you want to be the one that the manufacturer is going to call to help solve the problem.
Douglas Marshall, PhD, formerly held academic positions at Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, and University of Northern Colorado. After receiving his PhD from the University of Florida and his certification as a food scientist, he worked on the editorial board of the Journal of Food Protection and as contributing editor for the international peer-reviewed scientific journal Food Microbiology. He is a frequent consultant to NIH, WHO, FAO, USDA, and other government agencies and private companies in food safety.