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Perspective On: A Food Safety Laboratory

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.

by Gerry Broski

Specialized Instrumentation and Methodological Expertise Required

The potential for food contamination, economically motivated adulteration, and other related food safety issues is 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; its goal is to respond quickly to food contamination emergencies such as those endangered by the 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 sectors. 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 the types of food testing laboratories in existence today and the influencing factors behind a company’s selection of a food testing facility. 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 the 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. Regardless of a company’s size, additional benefits of outsourcing food testing include improved quality and accuracy of testing, faster turnaround time, wider range of analytical services provided, greater expertise, and the increased confidence of using a lab that is certified to national or international standards of compliance.

For all laboratories, analyzing and testing for potential food contaminants requires specialized 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 a company’s decision process. Contract laboratories perform testing on one or more components of projects for external clients. The ownership of the project remains with the client and the work done by 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 test 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 or 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 reliable and speedy testing as well as access to advice from the labs in situations in which 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 conduct 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, Thermo Fisher Scientific has created a lab that can react quickly, using existing structures and creating new testing methods that are needed in times of crisis.

Food Safety Response Center

Developed in response to an increasing frequency of food crises, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s FSRC is designed to respond rapidly to chemical contamination crises such as the one created by the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The FSRC is staffed with a team of experienced food chemists who have 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 close to Europe’s leading food safety research institutions and houses state-of-the-art analytical instruments to enable rapid method development to detect 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 between six and 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 protocols, 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 full knowledge of the food industry and keep up to date with regards to potential threats. The 2008 deliberate adulteration of milk with melamine helped the food industry realize that researchers were mainly undertaking targeted screening. Laboratories need to be set up to undertake both targeted and non targeted analyses 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 recognize 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 by taking into consideration the potential investment in expert training of personnel with a broad range of skills including analytical expertise, and the way in which the labs approach their maintenance of equipment, standardization 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 labs equip scientists with strategies for tackling contamination where it occurs in the food chain, providing greater knowledge about foodborne diseases and actions to take in future crises. It is also necessary to recognize that surveillance of food should be given high priority in the development of food safety equipment and protocols, thereby ensuring that laboratories are equipped to anticipate emerging risks.

For the latest information about Thermo Fisher Scientific solutions and its wide range of applications for food safety, please call 800-532-4752, e-mail, or visit