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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, April/May 2007

How to Choose a Third-Party Laboratory

by Wendy Warren-Serna, PhD

Selection of a third-party analytical laboratory is a difficult choice to make. Undoubtedly the stakes are high when you rely on a third-party for analytical results. Accordingly, this choice should be heavily supported and broadly acclaimed by your organization.

This article will explore seven key factors in selecting the right third-party laboratory. Those factors are accreditation, customer service, consistency, logistics, added services, industry contacts and management presence.

Accreditation

According to ISO 17025 standards, accreditation ensures a laboratory’s quality system has been examined for adequacy and functionality. It also indicates that there is a comprehensive system of checks and balances in place to verify technical competence and the lab can produce unequivocal results exists.

Your laboratory partner should willingly and easily produce accreditation information, including the approved scope of accreditation and supportive analytical proficiency data. The scope will include any analytical tests that the laboratory has been audited against. Analytical proficiency data will provide an overall picture of the lab staff’s technical competency. You laboratory partner should routinely participate in an external proficiency program that covers the scope of the test it performs, should be routine, ideally multiple times throughout the year. The quality control staff at the laboratory should also maintain current on ISO 17025 standards so they can maintain consistency and uphold quality system policies and procedures. Current accreditation status of your laboratory partner can also be found by logging onto www.a2la.org.

Customer Service

Good customer service goes hand-in-hand with generating results. Your laboratory partner must be courteous, available and timely in meeting your needs. Laboratory staff should be knowledgeable and provide guidance that will improve your process. The food industry is generally blind to the concept of “after hours,” holidays and weekends. Your laboratory partner should be as well. Whenever you need access to services, data and information, your laboratory partner should be available.

A laboratory that provides real-time sample processing, after hours, during weekends and on holidays will not only help the turnaround time in your results, but it will also be critical for those unexpected situations requiring analytical support. Your organization undoubtedly meets strict requirements and demands set forth by your customer; your laboratory should support not hinder your efforts.

Consistency

Consistency is critical at many levels including, sample processing and analysis, result reporting, troubleshooting and overall communication. This element is important for providing long-term perspective, especially during times of process variability. Biological sciences are innately anecdotal, making consistency in sample processing and reporting clear core competencies when searching for a laboratory partner. Consistency will help minimize variability that occurs in circumstances of “biology at its best.”

While the analytical methods used by your laboratory partner are most likely standardized and validated, unpredictable outcomes can occur due to the presence of microorganisms. Consistent laboratory logistics and procedures will aid technical staff in troubleshooting inconsistent results. This is paramount when it comes to data interpretation and resulting implications, especially regulatory actions. Consistency can help put your mind at ease during critical times of uncertainty. Labs that have a reputation for consistency use accredited, validated and/or standardized methods, quality control standards, technical training, result interpretation and reporting are several aspects of laboratories that have built a reputation on consistency.

Logistics

A lab’s plan for receiving and processing samples directly affects timeliness, and in some cases, the cost of analysis. Your laboratory should be available when you need service and accessible by couriers and for overnight deliveries.

Samples should be processed upon receipt, even after hours, during weekends or on holidays. The only limit on the time to results should be the limitations of the analytical assay, such as incubation time. If you have samples requiring urgent processing, your lab partner must be flexible and provide options. In many cases, various analytical assays that can be performed, and your laboratory should be your guide in helping you meeting your optimal product delivery logistics. In the event that a laboratory is unable to process your product for a particular test, it should offer alternative services. A lab partner should never hinder the process, no matter how logistical.

Added Services

Added services such as consulting, auditing, education, research and technical support allows your to see results in the bigger picture of food safety and quality. Ideally, your laboratory should provide these value-added services.

For example, if analytical results are less than your desired goal, your laboratory should be able to provide you with additional support, such as consulting and auditing to further examine potential hurdles to your goal. For example, if your environmental samples demonstrate unacceptable microbial levels, your lab should offer consulting and auditing services to help you work through processing hurdles and potential niche areas in the facility to ultimately support effective sanitation procedures.

Similarly, if you are having issues with the integrity of finished products, such as a diminished shelf life or abnormal appearance, your lab should have the technical expertise to recommend such key components as raw materials, ingredients and packaging for the development of a resolution plan.

Industry Contacts

Networking should also be an extension of your laboratory services. Through your lab, you should have open access to a network of resources and contacts that can support you and your organization as needs arise, or simply to keep you informed. Laboratories that are actively involved in industry trade meetings and technical sessions, and have long-standing relationships with industry leaders can provide information and support faster and with more depth. Laboratory partners that uphold and maintain such relationships can more strategically guide you through technological advances and regulatory change.

Management Presence

Effective management is key to any operation that relies on the skills of individual employees. The laboratory business offers many great technological advances, and in some cases, automation; however, it is still founded on the basic skills of the laboratory technician. Make sure that your laboratory partner maintains a strong management presence that ensures the principles of the quality system are maintained, in particular as they relate to employee training and competence, verification of results, and customer service. A committed approach to technical training and support is critical. Moreover, the depth of a laboratory’s technical support should be obvious form its overall knowledge base, and more importantly, with regard to available technical staff. Direct and timely access to trained technical staff for questions and information is directly proportional your ability to address needs as they arise.

Wendy Warren-Serna, Ph.D. is director of technical services for Food Safety Net Services. Reach her at 210-308-0675, ext. 220 or wwarren@food-safetynet.com.

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