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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, December/January 2009

Food Quality Jets Into the Future

The food lab of the future is closer than you think

by Linda L. Leake, MS

Remember “The Jetsons?” The wildly popular animated series rocketed onto the primetime television scene on September 23, 1962. Set mainly in sky-high Orbit City, the captivating show featured George Jetson, his boy Elroy, daughter Judy, and Jane, his wife, living the life of an average family in the year 2062. Residing in Skypad Apartments and employing a lovable maid named Rosie the Robot, the Jetsons introduced impressionable Earthlings to a galaxy of futuristic flying space cars, instant transport tubes, and creatively brilliant time-saving gadgets and gizmos.

In his position with Spacely Space Sprockets, George worked just three hours a day, three days a week, pressing a single computer button. Similar advances will be seen in the food lab of the future, which will mirror George’s workplace dynamically by being more efficient, reliable, and automated, says Purnendu Vasavada, PhD, an extension food safety and microbiology specialist with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF). The lab will also be smaller.

“Space is increasingly a premium in processing plants,” Dr. Vasavada points out, with no pun intended. “So the lab of the future will be smaller to optimize space savings. An instrument or a system that formerly occupied a 10’ x 6’ table will now need a 4’ x 2’ counter and will be driven by a laptop computer. However, if you test for specific pathogens, you will need to have a dedicated facility with a specialized air handling system to minimize the risk of cross contamination.”

Even if the lab is small and automation is at a competitive level, industry won’t see a lab without human intervention anytime soon. “There will, however, be hybrid, automated, or semi-automated systems that one technician can operate to efficiently conduct various analyses,” Dr. Vasavada says.

With a new generation of user-friendly test kits and instruments on the horizon, companies will be able to conduct in-house testing rather than sending samples to outside contract labs for analysis. “That will save time and money and minimize complications in data handling and interpretation,” adds Dr. Vasavada, who is also a member of Food Quality magazine’s editorial advisory panel.

To use in-house testing successfully, a company must invest in people and facilities, he continues. “In terms of human resources, the future food lab will need multitasking, not multiple employees,” he says. “How many samples are run and how sophisticated the technology is will determine the level of education and credentials needed by personnel handling testing. And no one employee will come in to a company with all the skills needed. It will be necessary for industry to constantly upgrade training and budget for retraining,” he says.

“While food labs traditionally specialized in such tasks as moisture and protein analysis, the food lab of the future will deal with chemical and microbiological testing,” Dr. Vasavada predicts. “Detection, isolation, and enumeration of microorganisms usually require one or more enrichment steps, thereby delaying time to results. That’s a hurdle we have to overcome. The lab of the future will have to be relatively fast-paced and efficient, just like George Jetson’s workplace.”

More Rapid Microbio

To that end, the lab of the future will require continued improvements by rapid microbiology diagnostic companies, says Thomas Weschler, MBA, president of Strategic Consulting, Inc. (SCI; Woodstock, Vt.). In 2008, only 41.5% of microbiology tests utilized rapid methods, according to Food Micro—2008 to 2013, a market research study from SCI.

“The percentage of rapid tests should increase dramatically in the coming years, as the diagnostic companies provide the performance improvements expected,” Weschler says. “With the resulting improvements in time to results, the food processing companies will increase their usage of rapid micro methods, driven by significant economic benefits and the ability to practice proactive and risk prevention food safety programs. By 2015, they should finally be able to do what many of them want to do today: that is, screen incoming raw materials and in-process parameters with near real-time microbiology information utilizing these newer methods.”

Several industry professionals representing laboratory technology vendors also foresee the future envisioned by Dr. Vasavada. Pascal Yvon, PharmD, MBA, chief executive officer for U.S. Markets of AES-Chemunex (Cranbury, N.J.), agrees that automation will play a key role, as will standardization.

“Automation is a means to standardization, which saves time and increases productivity,” he says. “To do that, you must get rid of as many steps as possible that can be influenced by the operator. We must use methods and technologies with which every operator will get results and meet objectives that are not impaired by manual work. The goal is to first reduce the number of manipulations and then ultimately be fully automated so people can push a button, walk away from the instrument, and get results.”

Increasing productivity is one of the food industry’s main concerns, Dr. Yvon emphasizes. “With more automation, you can have employees focus on more productive actions for the company, including improved customer service,” he says. “There is also a big trend to be able to provide results as quick as possible with rapid analytical methods. The goal is for food manufacturers to manage quality on a real-time basis.”

AES-Chemunex specializes in microbiological testing solutions and maintains two main divisions, traditional and rapid methods. The rapid methods division is focused on two technologies: flow cytometry to provide the total microbial count rapidly and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect microorganisms both quickly and specifically. “In particular, the rapid methods market is fast growing, because that’s what the lab of the future needs and demands,” Dr. Yvon says.

“The speed to results is linked to the sensitivity of results,” he adds. “We can get results in seconds, but they are not sensitive enough. All instrument companies today are working to provide the best combination of speed and sensitivity, namely speed as quick as possible with the sensitivity as high as possible.”

Chemunex technology, with its range of flow cytometry analyzers (D-Count, BactiFlow ALS, and BactiFlow), allows labs to get total viable count results within a day, with a sensitivity of one microorganism per gram or milliliter, or results within 20 minutes, with a sensitivity around 50-100 microorganisms per gram or milliliter. (The precise sensitivity level is food product dependent.) The AES-Chemunex AdiaFood product line also offers rapid pathogen detection using its real-time PCR tools—instrument and reagent kits—and provides results within 24 hours.

“AES-Chemunex is working continuously to increase the sensitivity of microbiological testing and decrease time to results. But it is a constant battle, and our greatest challenge for the future is more and more automation with quicker results to support the HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) process,” Dr. Yvon says.

“You want to know right away if you can release the finished product and ship it to market, so testing must be fast, sensitive, and reliable,” Dr. Yvon adds. “But to minimize the risk of contamination, food companies should use HACCP and identify the critical control points throughout the process and monitor them. If there’s a dangerous hazard along the way, you want to know what’s going on immediately.”

And there are challenges to overcome as well, he says. “There is great financial pressure in the race for productivity and food quality. Ideally, you want to achieve both, and rapid methods have the potential to increase productivity without compromising quality.”

Automation Key to the Future

“Automation has greatly enhanced the efficiency and quality of data from laboratories,” says J. Stan Bailey, PhD, director of scientific affairs for the Industrial Diagnostics business group for bioMérieux Industry (Hazelwood, Mo.). “However, before we have full automation like the Jetsons, where you put a specimen in a container, push a button, walk away, and five minutes later have the results, we must increase the sensitivity of pathogen assays to detect one cell in 25-100 grams of food product. Otherwise, we still have to go through the enrichment step.”

Dr. Bailey’s company has long recognized the need for automation, he says. With the introduction in 1992 of VIDAS, the first automated pathogen detection system, followed by the 2006 launch of TEMPO, the first automated enumeration system for quality indicators, the company is committed to providing the food industry with high quality, user-friendly laboratory tools to help standardize microbiology testing and enhance food company efficiencies, he says.

VIDAS provides a range of rapid pathogen detection assays with next day and 48-hour results. The latest parameter now available on the VIDAS platform incorporates a new technology that uses phage recombinant proteins for the detection of E. coli O157:H7 and provides results in less than seven hours for some samples.

“Automation is the key to the food lab of the future,” Dr. Bailey says. “Every step that can be automated increases the quality of the subsequent data by reducing the chance for laboratory error. And automation allows data to be instantly uploaded through laboratory information management systems and [makes it] immediately assessable by lab managers from a central location, allowing more informed and efficient decisions to be made of product release and disposition.”

Critical Mass Into the Future

Mass spectrometry (MS) is, of course, an important tool in today’s food lab; in the future, all state-of-the-art food labs will need the latest MS tools to identify antibiotics and pesticides in raw materials, says Jerry Zweigenbaum, PhD, market development specialist for LC (liquid chromatography)/MS for Agilent Technologies, Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.). “Inductively coupled plasma MS will be needed to detect trace levels of metals in ingredients,” he says.

MS has several food-related applications, including identifying unknown compounds by the mass of the compound molecules or their fragments, determining the structure of a compound by observing its fragmentation, quantifying the amount of a compound in a sample, and determining other physical, chemical, or even biological properties of compounds.

Just last year, Agilent introduced the Agilent 6220 Accurate-Mass time-of-flight (TOF) and 6520 Accurate-Mass quadrupole TOF LC/MS systems, which deliver mass accuracy, mass resolution, sensitivity, and speed for proteomics, metabolomics, product degradation, and other complex experiments.

“The changing environment and the world of natural toxins generated by fungi also demand advanced analytical capabilities,” Dr. Zweigenbaum says. “Food labs will need to be equipped to conduct general and specific analyses for compounds you expect and those you don’t expect.”

VICAM (Watertown, Mass.) develops rapid tests—approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Association of Analytical Communities—for mycotoxins and foodborne pathogens. Just a few months ago, the company launched Myco6in1 LC/MS/MS, a first-of-its-kind test kit that simultaneously determines multiple mycotoxins from a single sample extraction.

“Myco6in1 is the most advanced LC/MS multi-analyte column on the market,” says Stephen Powers, PhD, VICAM’s director of research and development. “It can be used to identify and measure the quantity of more than 12 species of aflatoxins, ochratoxin A, fumonisins, deoxynivalenol, zearalenone, and tricothecenes. The kit has already been validated for mycotoxin analysis in corn, and research is in progress by VICAM and collaborators from government and industry to optimize procedures for testing other agricultural matrixes.”

Last year, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc. (Waltham, Mass.) introduced its Exactive Benchtop LC/MS system, which uses Orbitrap technology to analyze complex samples containing pesticides, metabolites, and other target compounds.

In the future, Orbitrap technology will be used in food labs, accompanied by faster sample preparation technologies such as online TurboFlow LC/MS, says Dipankar Ghosh, PhD, the company’s global strategic marketing manager for environmental and food safety.

“Exactive is an easy-to-use benchtop system combining premium performance with a simple, intuitive interface, resulting in an LC/MS system that’s smaller [and] faster, as well as affordable for virtually any lab,” Dr. Ghosh says. He adds that the system provides sub-parts per million mass accuracies at resolutions of up to 100,000. “The instrument is very easy to operate, and its performance characteristics are ideally suited for screening applications.”

Global Drivers

The global nature of the food industry and the regulatory environment will continue to require global solutions for food safety and quality, says Brooke Schwartz, senior director of food and environmental testing for Applied Biosystems, Inc. (Foster City, Calif.), a life sciences company that has installed 220,000 laboratory instruments in 30,000 labs spanning 100 countries.

“The recent outbreak of melamine contamination has highlighted the need for testing labs to address the import and export of potentially tainted food,” Schwartz says. “Efforts to protect the global food supply more effectively in the future will hinge on food manufacturers being able to better comply with food safety standards country by country, while governments maintain the ability to scale testing capabilities on short notice.”

Applied Biosystems is working with government and industry in China, the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world to use scientific advances to improve compliance and food safety testing. One example of this effort involves using easier and more efficient methods to analyze food for melamine contamination, Schwartz says.

“Solutions will be needed for emerging problems, both chemical and biological,” Schwartz says. “The food lab of the future will require a wide range of real-time identification systems that can quickly identify both known and unknown contaminants. A complete system will include robust sample preparation, DNA-based assays, instruments, and software, all designed to work together. Applied Biosystems is focusing its bioinformatics, sequencing, assay design, and chemical analysis capabilities on developing new ways for food labs to address emerging food safety threats.”

An intergalactic food industry is likely light years away, but globalization is playing a key role today and will have a big impact on the food lab of the future, Dr. Vasavada says. “The scope of a global company’s lab will be a bit different and more complex than a present day lab. Besides conducting routine quality control and food safety testing, the future lab will have to coordinate testing activities with vendors and suppliers all over the world and, hence, will not have a centralized focus like today’s corporate laboratory,” he says.

“We may not be ready to have robots like Rosie single-handedly operating our food labs, but we are already embracing Jetsonesque space technology to improve pathogen detection on our planet,” Dr. Vasavada says. “These are exciting times, and the best is yet to come. Stay tuned.”

Leake is a food safety consultant and writer based in Wilmington, N.C. Reach her at or (910) 799-4881.



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