Are You Really Comparing ‘Apples to Apples’? Four Tips For Comparing Food Testing Labs

Covance Science Blog

If you walk into a McDonald’s restaurant anywhere in the world, one thing is certain: your hamburger will taste the same. Ensuring that level of consistency in tens of thousands of restaurants is no small feat—and is a testament to the stringent quality and safety practices followed by their suppliers.

Today increasing numbers of food manufacturers seek to achieve that same consistency worldwide. Achieving consistency takes regular, global product testing.  However, finding a partner that can providethis confidence, anywhere in the world, requires some investigation of its own.

So what do you look for in a lab? And how do you compare one to another? After more than 20 years of managing safety and quality programs, these are my top four suggestions:

Three words: global quality system. Even though you might be comparing apples to apples (literally), if your labs are owned and managed independently, it’s futile to compare the results. No matter how much auditing is done in advance, without a global quality system (GQS) in place you cannot be assured labs are collecting the same type of sample, following the same methods or using similar equipment in their analysis. These variables make it difficult, if not impossible, to compare test results from one lab to the next.

With a harmonized global quality system it’s as if every result is from  a single lab facility . When every  lab testing site  observes the same standard procedures and adheres to meticulously detailed methods, you can be assured that you’re truly comparing apples to apples no matter which facility actually performed the testing.

Think twice about a site-to-site approach. If there’s an advantage to working with multiple, independent labs across the globe, I don’t know what it is. Food companies add a tremendous amount of complexity to their operations with this approach. Take laboratory information management systems (LIMS) for example. If all testing partners are not on the same LIMS, data is collected, analyzed and displayed using different software, making it difficult to quickly compare results or to perform comprehensive analyses. On the other hand, if a GQS is in place, all labs are on the same LIMS, allowing you to view the results of a test in Singapore as easily as in San Diego, while shortening turnaround time.

Chose labs that go one step further. Obviously ISO 17025 accreditation is a must. If all of your labs aren’t meeting these general requirements for competent testing and calibration, you should be concerned. You have no guarantee that you’re getting the same level of quality.

However, labs step out from the pack when they earn additional voluntary accreditations, like those of the independent, non-profit AOAC International. These additional, more stringent guidelines raise the bar for a lab’s performance and your peace of mind.

Your assessment process matters. Prior to an engagement, manufacturers often require labs to complete a questionnaire to ensure SOPs, followed by an in-person audit. While practical, this process can result in disparities in how different auditors interface with each lab. For example, do your auditors just confirm that a lab validates its methods? Or do they confirm that the methods are validated in the same way? With a GQS in place these concerns are eliminated—and a consistently tested product (and hamburger) is practically guaranteed.

Mr. David Fall is the Global Manager of Quality Systems for the Nutritional Chemistry and Food Safety business of Covance. He has over 15 years of experience in regulatory and standards compliance and has presided over the ISO 17025 accreditation of five labs globally.  Mr. Fall is also an active member of AOAC International and the Chairperson of its Analytical Laboratory Accreditation Criteria Committee (ALACC).