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Perspective On: A Food Testing Lab

Developers of analytical instrumentation for food laboratories are constantly being kept on their toes—foremost by the competing technical advancements and expanding market demands inherent in their business, and also by the need to help customers comply with changing and more stringent regulatory requirements worldwide.

by Bernard B. Tulsi

New-generation Lab Instrumentation Reduces Business Risks and Increases Food Safety

Developers of analytical instrumentation for food laboratories are constantly being kept on their toes—foremost by the competing technical advancements and expanding market demands inherent in their business, and also by the need to help customers comply with changing and more stringent regulatory requirements worldwide. Also requiring their rapt attention is a relentless tide of contaminations, outbreaks and food recalls—most recently, deadly Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes. As a result, technical change and innovation have made steady strides in food testing equipment.

“We now have a good probability of mitigating business risks for food producers and manufacturers and minimizing safety risks to consumers,” says Paul Zavitsanos, worldwide food industry manager at Agilent, which holds a substantial global market share in food lab instrumentation. “The future seems bright in food safety once we accomplish our technical mission of creating effective detection and measurement systems—and the legal and regulatory missions, if accomplished, will actually make food safer,” he says

While the new United States Food Safety Modernization Act has been passed, and what it intends to regulate is known, its accompanying regulations are still part of a developing scenario. Title I of the Act covers improvement of the capacity to prevent food safety problems. Title II covers expansion of the capacity to detect and respond to food safety problems—greater testing frequency, considerably more foreign testing facilities, and an increase in the numbers of inspectors, periodic reevaluations and laboratory accreditation. Recall fees are also covered under this title, which also makes it clear that the costs for recalls and investigations are to be borne by the food producers involved. This is an important change, and in addition authorities now have the power to issue recalls as well as to charge food producers and collect fees for any tests. Title III covers improvements to the safety of imported food.

According to key industry experts such as Zavitsanos and Dr. Paul Young, director, chemical analysis operations, Waters Corporation, the U.S. is not alone in the implementation of new food safety laws. Fast-growing, large-scale food producers and consumers such as China and India also have new laws, and Europe has also instituted new food regulations. There seems to be a general global consensus supporting more testing, evaluation and control, and greater care being taken within food-based facilities.

“This means that globalization has increased food safety risks on the consumer side but it has also increased the business risks of producers globally,” says Zavitsanos. “Agilent takes the position that chemical, biological and physical measurements of products represent mitigation against business risks. This is clear from the law, from lab management and from the executive perspective in the food business. That is good news for instrument suppliers,” he adds.

Young also sees this as an opportunity for increased testing. He cautions, however, that this creates challenges such as large volumes of samples, the number of analytes to be tested in any given sample and the increased potential for false positives—resulting in the need for more confirmatory testing. In such a scenario, the goal should be to generate robust and definitive results that reduce or eliminate the need for confirmatory testing. For this reason, he says, “We are starting to see a significant movement toward mass spectrometric methods because of their ability to generate robust and unequivocal results.”

Food safety risks fall into two broad categories. Biological risks are more prevalent. Chemical risks are targeted by the most technologically advanced tools, which is likely the reason for fewer safety issues in the chemical area. Chemical contaminants include a large number of offending target compounds—pesticides, veterinary drugs, trace metals, emerging contaminants, steroids and allergens, among others. Both Young and Zavitsanos point to well-established analytical methodologies and versatile instrumentation in their companies’ quivers to meet the still-challenging testing needs on the chemical side, both organic and inorganic.

Agilent’s Triple Quadrupole GC/MS pesticide analyzer.

Chemical analyses are typically the subject of target compound detection programs in which analysts know or suspect what compounds they are investigating. Exciting new contaminant discovery techniques such as Q-TOF, LC-TOF and GC-TOF enable the investigation of samples without any a priori understanding of what dangerous contaminants may be in them. For example, if an analyst did not know there was melamine in milk, under target detection programs, the melamine would not be targeted, at least in the past, and hence not detected.

“This represents tremendous progress in identifying compounds that are not on target lists. It is still labor intensive and requires a lot of work by knowledgeable people, so it is expensive. Nonetheless, the technology is there and is widely available in research labs, audit facilities and contract labs,” says Zavitsanos, who believes that in about five years both time to answer and cost will decrease sufficiently so that these systems would be used routinely by mediumsized labs, at least.

In the food safety area, Agilent’s Triple Quadrupole 6490 series, and its 7000 series GC Triple Quadrupole in GCMS, are used heavily in target compound analysis. Waters offers the XEVO mass spectrometer, a highly sensitive instrument capable of targeting hundreds to thousands of analytes, depending on the requirements for a particular sample. For unknown or unsuspected contaminants, Agilent offers models such as the 6540 for Q-TOF, an LC-MS instrument, as well as the new Agilent GC-Q-TOF, which is analogous to the LC-Q-TOF but on the GC side. With respect to testing for unknowns, Young says, “We are developing clever software tools, using a mass spectrometry approach, to take one sample and compare it with another that is known to be of good quality. Our work in this area is currently on the XEVO G2 TOF.”

Waters’ XEVO G2 TOF.

Young also does not believe that these advanced systems for detecting unknowns will become widely used in the next few years. He notes, however, that many food industry laboratories and several contract labs are showing interest. “A lot of customers are quite interested in acquiring the ability to quickly screen between good and bad food,” he says.

Recalls for biological contaminants (bacteria and virus) far exceed those for chemicals, especially in the United States. Biological testing is not as instrument-intensive as chemical testing. Over the last 30 years, the instruments used in microbiology have not been on the same trajectory as those used for chemical analysis, according to Zavitsanos.

Agilent is focusing on the rapid and comprehensive evaluation of foodborne pathogens in food samples. The targets are both bacterial and viral, at both the species and strain levels, so that point of entry into the food chain could be detected, according to Zavitsanos. “If this could be done at sufficient throughput with appropriate instrumentation, the reliance on epidemiological analysis of outbreaks could be minimized, and it becomes possible to measure the point of entry faster and with greater precision,” he says.

The methods currently available for biological testing are onerous, time-intensive and costly. “Agilent is exploring the possibility of introducing more instrumentation into food microbiology, such as new Q-PCR technology, which allows Multi Matching and Mass Codes techniques, and which uses mass spectrometry to identify known sequences of DNA out of samples and encode the information as mass spectrometry data. This is new and emerging technology, as microbiology is still largely based on isolating colonies of organisms in a Petri dish. It will, however, take a while to develop and validate, and to get the buy-in of the larger community,” says Zavitsanos.

On the biological side, proper preparation of food samples and periods of incubation to increase the organism count are important for identifying and determining the viability of pathogens. Now, there are sensitive technologies for use in environments where bacterial counts are sufficiently high to identify organisms without the 12 to 24 hours typically needed for such sample enrichment, according to Zavitsanos.

Stuart Ray, technical director, Seward Limited, says that his outfit works exclusively in the area of sample preparation for food testing in shelf life and safety analyses. Ray says that its Seward Stomacher paddle blender sample-preparation units are used for a range of pathogen testing, such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, in the food industry. He says that more than eight million samples per day are prepared on Stomacher paddle blender units worldwide. “Our machine is relied on to produce a representative sample from a foodstuff for subsequent analysis, so it stands at the front end of the process to detect pathogens,” he says.

The Seward Stomacher® 400 circulator.

“The main benefit from using the Stomacher Circulator is that a representative sample is produced. In microbiological food testing, a representative sample is important because the living organisms involved tend to behave differently from the test targets in chemistry,” says Ray. “This eliminates the need for analysts to make judgments and rely on the integrity of the samples that are being subjected to differing test methods. If you start with a poor sample, no matter how sophisticated the test methods, the results are likely to be poor also.”

3M Food Safety, which has served the food business for the past 25 years, made the decision in 2009 to broaden its product offerings beyond the field of microbiology. Kevin McGoldrick, 3M Food Safety’s technical services and regulatory affairs global manager, says that more awareness and greater testing have created safer food. “So the challenge becomes how to do it more efficiently and more cost-effectively in a very competitive marketplace,” he says.

3M Petrifilm aerobic count plates.

McGoldrick says that the company’s primary products are on the microbiology side. Among these are its Petrifilm Aqua Plates, a microorganism testing tool used by food processors worldwide for the past 25 years. Petrifilm, which is used by water and beverage processors to detect contaminants, offers the advantage of increased worker productivity, according to McGoldrick. Petrifilm also offers faster end-product screening results. The company also makes and sells Clean-Trace Surface ATP for the validation of the sanitation process, a critical control point in food manufacturing, which helps ensure that processing equipment is sanitized and free of bacteria before operations are started. Carolyn Otten, senior director, specialized services, at Chemir Analytical Services, is involved in nonroutine food safety testing. “This includes preventative measures; companies seek our services to ensure that their food products are safe before they put them out on the market. They may also approach us when they have a contamination or off-odors or off- flavors to their food.”

3M Clean-Trace Surface System

Otten says clients proactively seek their services when developing new packaging systems for their foods, or when they are making important changes in the types of food they are offering, often out of market necessity. They want to ensure that materials used in the package in which the food will be cooked do not migrate under variable conditions into the food, creating a safety issue.

“One common scenario is that they would send us the food and new or competing packaging systems they want to evaluate. Our evaluation entails cooking the food first in a neutral glass container, where it is not exposed to the packaging, as a control. Then the food is cooked in the packaging system according to the directions.

“After cooking, the foods cooked in the package and the controls are compared with a view to finding any chemical differences. We then verify that anything found in the food cooked in the packaging system did come from the packaging materials. If required, we quantify the extraneous materials, and if the customers want it, we send the samples and data to a toxicologist for additional safety analyses,” she says.

In an ironic way, the deliberate melamine contamination a few years ago in China may have provided the impetus for the widespread improvement in the quality of food testing instrumentation such as mass spectrometry seen under way today. “Over the next five years, there will be a significant drive toward mass spectrometry in the food safety area. Mass spec generates higher-quality data that is more instructive on what is in a sample, and we will have greater confidence in the results,” says Young.