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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, June/July 2008

Put Your Product to the Test

LIMS enhances product safety testing

by Colin Thurston

Food safety concerns have risen dramatically in recent years because of the severe consequences of foodborne illnesses. In order to assure product quality, optimize the efficiency and throughput of continuous processes, and comply with governmental regulations, the food industry must perform rigorous, real-time product safety testing on a regular basis.

This is where laboratory information management system (LIMS) software proves useful. By automatically capturing sample data, checking for out-of-specification results, and assembling data into a variety of report formats, LIMS software can help companies comply with strict regulations, thereby ensuring the safety of their products. In addition, this system offers real-time access to critical laboratory information spread across disparate locations, enabling prompt identification of safety hazards while accelerating productivity and time to market.

Food Safety Issues and Concerns

The global food industry is changing and evolving constantly as food manufacturers, distributors, and retailers strive to satisfy a growing consumer demand for high quality, safe food. Foodborne diseases are estimated to cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.1 Nationwide product recalls highlight the devastating effects foodborne illnesses can have: In 2006, contaminated peanut butter caused more than 300 people to become ill, of whom at least 50 were hospitalized, while in 2007, contaminated spinach caused 206 illnesses, three deaths, and more than 100 hospitalizations. Incidents of kidney failure and deaths in cats and dogs initiated an extended recall of more than 100 brands of pet food in 2007.2 Most recently, the United States Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of beef—35 million pounds of which had entered a school lunch program—in the nation’s largest food recall, highlighting the need for better tracking and audit trails of food.3

Shifting demographics and changing consumption patterns are increasing food safety problems in the United States.4 Consider, for example, that by 2015 approximately 20% of the country’s population will be over the age of 60. Because people 60 years and older very often suffer from illnesses that suppress their immune systems, they are more susceptible to foodborne diseases. Americans’ tendency to consume convenience foods that may have been subject to cross-contamination from other foods or from workers causes another problem. Finally, foods that are consumed raw or with minimal processing are often associated with foodborne illnesses.

Rise in Imported Food

Globalization also affects the safety of the food supply. In countries that used to depend wholly on their own food production, imports from other countries have soared dramatically. In the United States, food imports have increased by about 50%, with approximately 25,000 shipments arriving daily from more than 100 countries.5 Consumers in the United States purchase approximately $2 trillion worth of products that are brought in by over 800,000 importers through over 300 ports of entry.

A number of forces in both developing and developed countries are driving this change. Incomes that have more than doubled in many countries during the past two decades have increased food purchasing power considerably. Lower transportation costs stim- ulate trade.7 And researchers have noted an ever-increasing consumer appetite for foreign foods and beverages.

Regulatory Framework

In an attempt to ensure food safety and safeguard public health, global regulatory bodies have introduced and enforced stringent rules. The World Health Organization’s Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses, and Foodborne Diseases, for example, has developed a Global Strategy for Food Safety. Its goal is to reduce the health and social burden of foodborne illness by advising and assisting member states to lessen exposure to unacceptable levels of chemicals or microorganisms in food.8 The European Union has published a white paper on food safety that proposes implementing certain measures to achieve the highest possible level of health protection.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented a Food Protection Plan that builds in prevention first, then intervention, and finally, response. It is a forward-looking concept that uses science and modern information technology to facilitate the identification of potential hazards ahead of time, to improve intervention methods, and to trigger immediate response.2,4 The plan presents a robust strategy designed to protect the U.S. food supply from both unintentional contamination and deliberate attack. The Food Protection Plan aims to address the changes in food sources, production, and consumption that are prevalent in today’s world.

The FDA has also introduced the Import Safety Action Plan, which includes 14 broad recommendations and 50 short- and long-term action steps to improve import safety. Among the plan’s most important aims are to establish a stronger certification process, provide incentives to encourage good importer practices, increase transparency by publishing the names of certified producers and importers, and strengthen penalties for both foreign and domestic entities.

LIMS in the Food Industry

Laboratories in the food industry play an important role in the food safety compliance process. They compare laboratory test results with specifications to ensure food safety and integrity and to limit the extent of product recalls. Reports that detail the results of such analyses must be disseminated to both consumers and regulators in a timely manner. Traceability of batches and speed of analysis are of utmost importance. Critical control points require monitoring, verification, and recordkeeping. LIMS software addresses all these requirements.

Modern food companies need a flexible LIMS that will meet the needs of the broader organization. An ideal LIMS is one that serves as an integrated platform capable of supporting key enterprise processes and systems, facilitating open communication with laboratory and enterprise applications, and offering client or server functionality for greater access to information across the organization. With an enterprise LIMS, food processing companies can spot trends and monitor product quality more quickly and easily, dramatically improving their overall quality control process. An integrated approach results in better data flow, less redundant data, virtually no transcription errors, and increased laboratory efficiency. Data are available to managers and decision-makers organization-wide, leading to rapid, data-driven business decision-making.

A global solution helps to reduce the total cost of ownership by centralizing and consolidating information technology and technical support personnel. An enterprise LIMS reduces downtime and increases productivity for the end user. It can also lower the cost of implementation, upgrades, application development, and training. In addition, standardization streamlines vendor relationships and improves purchasing power. The reporting function is one of the most important features of a LIMS solution: Laboratory information captured and processed by a LIMS can be organized and presented automatically by many different parts of the organization, using a wide variety of report formats.

Applying the System

One of the world’s top food ingredients companies needed a LIMS capable of ensuring optimum quality control in starter culture production. The system had to be easy to use—even by non-specialized personnel. Additionally, the system needed to take a comprehensive approach to analysis, with each analysis request handled entirely online, from sample login and test assignment to data capture and final reporting. In addition, the company needed a system that would facilitate full automation and secure access to certain confidential data only to authorized personnel. Seamless integration with the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system was also crucial.

In order to meet these requirements, the company implemented and standardized a Thermo Scientific LIMS solution across all of its six culture production sites in four countries. Since the deployment of the Thermo Scientific LIMS, this producer has experienced considerable benefits with regard to real-time, global availability of analytical results, leading to increased laboratory productivity and accelerated sample turnaround. The system has enabled direct comparison of results between research and production quality control whenever new products are being launched. Operation and administration of the system has been kept simple. Key performance indicators are easily calculated, and different facilities are measured by common criteria. Global bottlenecks can now be identified easily and in a timely manner.

The system serves as a complete tool for information deriving from projects across all sites, enabling laboratory scientists to easily consolidate sample and instrument data. Implementation of the LIMS ensures that validated methods of production and standard operating procedures are being followed whenever possible. The solution has been integrated with the existing ERP system; as soon as the test results are introduced and authorized in the LIMS by the laboratory personnel, the information is available for the processing facilities technicians, laboratory administrators, and other personnel.

Consistency of results is guaranteed with the use of the Thermo Scientific LIMS, because almost all calculations are processed by the system using the same format for different purposes at different plants. Spreadsheets and manual data transfer are thus eliminated. Access to reports generated across more than 50 sites is now possible via the Internet.

Food safety is recognized as one of today’s most important global issues. Food companies need to conduct accurate, continuous testing and must have the data readily available in order to comply with regulations. By offering the flexibility to accommodate various workflows, laboratory types, and user communities across the organization, enterprise-wide LIMS solutions can help food companies achieve fast and reliable results. An enterprise-wide standardization on LIMS can provide immediate benefits in productivity, information sharing, accelerated sample processing, and electronic reporting capture.

Thurston is director of product strategy and process industries at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Philadelphia. Contact him at (866) 463-6522 and, or visit


  1. Mead PS, Slutsker L, Dietz V, et al. Food-related illness and death in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: Accessed June 10, 2008.
  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food protection plan: an integrated strategy for protecting the nation’s food supply. FDA. Available at: Accessed June 10, 2008.
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Press release no. 0046.08: Statement by Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer regarding Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company two year product recall. USDA. Available at: wps/portal/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=2008/02/0046.xml. Accessed June 10, 2008.
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food protection plan. Available at: initiatives/advance/food.html. Accessed June 10, 2008.
  5. Schmit J. U.S. food imports outrun FDA resources. USA Today Web site. March 18, 2007. Available at: money/industries/food/2007-03-18-food-safety-usat_N.htm. Accessed June 10, 2008.
  6. Interagency Working Group on Import Safety. Action plan for import safety: a roadmap for continual improvement. November 2007. Available at: actionplan.pdf. Accessed June 10, 2008.
  7. Regmi A, Gehlhar M. Consumer preferences and concerns shape global food trade —global food trade. BNET Business Network Web site. Sep-Dec 2001. Available at: Accessed June 10, 2008.
  8. Second FAO/WHO Global Forum of Food Safety Regulators. Food import/export control and certification import systems of the United States of America. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization. Available at: Accessed June 10, 2008.
  9. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. Fact sheet: import safety action plan: increasing protection of American consumers. November 2007. Available at: news/releases/2007/11/20071106-7.html. Accessed June 10, 2008.



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