DAILY NEWS Dec 30, 2011 10:05 AM - 0 comments

Quality control in the food lab

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2011-12-30

Instituting quality control programs in food labs ultimately yields safer food on the table. In this article, the Standards Council of Canada explains why acquiring accreditation has multiple benefits for labs.

The testing of food products requires that everything be put on the table.

 

Any discrepancies or 'findings' related to food tests, if left uncorrected, could potentially harm millions of Canadians. Because there is no acceptable margin of error when it comes to food inspection, most laboratories in Canada strive to adhere to national and international standards as a means of establishing consistent, quality results.

An upward swing in consumer confidence has many taking notice.

According to results from a 2011 survey conducted by Leger Marketing, 68 percent of Canadians gave Canada's food safety system a favourable confidence rating. This confidence is directly tied to the stringent quality control methods that many Canadian food testing laboratories follow.

"It should give Canadians a sense of confidence in the products that are coming out," said Shelagh McDonagh, national manager for lab quality assurance and accreditation of the sciences branch at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in Ottawa. "Labs can use [accreditation] to market their services and defend themselves if they are challenged...it has a lot of power."

Through its food, animal and plant inspection programs and services, CFIA contributes to safeguarding the health and well-being of Canada's people, environment and economy. The agency is dedicated to protecting Canadians from preventable food safety hazards, and to ensuring that food safety emergencies are effectively managed through public awareness and food safety campaigns.

Competent food testing begins with the proper personnel training, which is why the renowned international standard ISO/IEC 17025:2005 - General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories is so widely used. "If you wish to conform to the standard, you have to train and you also have to verify the effectiveness of that training by monitoring the performance. It's just good practice," said McDonagh. "Every element you need to deliver a solid quality result has been covered in that standard."

In Canada, the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) evaluates the competence of Canadian laboratories to the international standard (ISO/IEC 17025). By issuing accreditation to this standard, SCC provides assurance to customers and clients of accredited laboratories that they have the competence to perform testing and laboratory work in a particular field, such as food testing.

According to McDonagh, achieving and maintaining accreditation to the ISO/IEC 17025 standard can be a challenge for smaller laboratories. However, McDonagh adds that the standard sells itself and is necessary to establish proper operating and quality procedures for food testing laboratories.

"It [ISO/IEC 17025] gives you all the guidance you need because if you're a new lab coming in and you don't really know what's expected, it covers everything," she said, referring to the step-by-step guidance for senior management as well as to the guidance for technical staff handling samples in an actual laboratory. The main reason why many companies involved in food testing make a point of using laboratories that meet the international laboratory accreditation requirements (set out in the international standard, ISO/IEC 17025) is to prepare to address a range of technical problems that may arise during testing.

Among the common issues faced by food testing laboratories are some that relate directly to quality control. Any number of factors could affect the integrity of testing samples, data records and the accuracy of testing results, including the methods used for handling and analysis. Having quality procedures that address the collection of samples, transportation of those samples, evaluations and reporting all contribute to a laboratory's competence. Each procedure has an important impact on food testing and is producing trusted data for customers. Accuracy and precision of each test method are frequently monitored by professional lab personnel to help ensure proper quality procedures are being followed.

Maple Leaf Foods' Courtland Laboratory has seen several benefits to having their in-house laboratory located in Kitchener, ON, accredited by SCC to the ISO/IEC 17025 standard.

"There are dollar-savings [because] rather than sending the products out for testing, you can do them in-house," said Dianne Culley, quality assurance specialist of accreditation.

This particular Maple Leaf Foods lab does mostly environmental testing, but also tests ready-to-eat meats and some raw meats as well. In addition to the financial benefits, according to Culley, accreditation was acquired in order to increase opportunities for trade, and that accreditation will "in part make it easier to export to the United States, because accredited labs can also be recognized internationally as meeting a particular standard," she said.

"If you're an accredited facility then the testing is meeting a certain standard and it's reliable, reproducible, accurate and dependable," she said, adding that the overall image of a food testing laboratory increases significantly when accredited to produce competent data.

Through quality control procedures that enable laboratories to identify and prevent commonly encountered testing issues, these laboratories are better able to deliver quality results. Training for laboratory personnel on the requirements, in combination with accreditation to the international standard (ISO/IEC 17025), helps ensure that Canadian food testing laboratories have what it takes to bring safe food into our kitchens and onto our tables.

Next steps

The Standards Council of Canada's accreditation programs are based on internationally recognized standards and guides. This applies to the accreditation of standards development organizations (SDOs) as well as conformity assessment organizations. To obtain more information about accreditation programs and services, or to learn how to apply for accreditation, please visit http://www.scc.ca/en/programs-services.

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