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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, October/November 2010

Seven Keys to an Effective Contract Lab

Stakes are high when relying on a lab for analytical services

by Wendy Warren, PhD

Selecting a third party analytical laboratory is difficult. The stakes are high when you rely on a third party for analytical results. Accordingly, this choice should be heavily supported by your organization. There are seven key factors to consider when selecting the appropriate third-party laboratory:

  • accreditation;
  • customer service;
  • consistency;
  • logistics;
  • added services;
  • industry contacts; and
  • management presence.

Accreditation

According to ISO 17025 standards, accreditation ensures that 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 that the lab is technically competent and can produce unequivocal results.

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 against which the laboratory has been audited. Analytical proficiency data will provide an overall picture of the lab staff’s technical competency.

Your laboratory partner should participate in an external proficiency program that is routine, covers the scope of the tests it performs, and, ideally, occurs multiple times throughout the year. The quality control staff at the laboratory should also operate under current 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 for your results, but it will also be critical for those unexpected situations requiring analytical support. Your organization undoubtedly meets the strict requirements and demands set forth by your customer, and 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 the variability that occurs even 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 capability 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 with a reputation for consistency use accredited, validated, and/or standardized methods, quality control standards, technical training, results interpretation, and reporting.

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 be accessible by couriers and for overnight deliveries.

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 be accessible by couriers and for overnight deliveries.

Samples should be processed upon receipt, even after hours, during weekends, or on holidays. Time to results should only be increased by 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 can be performed, and your laboratory should be your guide in helping you reach optimal product delivery logistics. When a laboratory cannot process your product for a particular test, it should offer alternative services. A lab partner should never hinder the process, no matter how logistically challenging.

Added Services

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

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 laboratory should offer consulting and auditing services to help you work through processing issues and potential niche areas in the facility, and should ultimately support effective sanitation procedures.

Similarly, if you are having finished product integrity issues, such as shortened shelf life or abnormal physical appearance, your laboratory should have the technical expertise to recommend evaluations for key components of your process (e.g., raw materials, ingredients, packaging) to help develop a resolution plan. Your laboratory partner should be willing and able to work with you to dissect such problems, offer alternate approaches, and help to validate solutions. Staying informed of industry trends and the latest research, and incorporating that information into its pro-cesses, is your lab partner’s obligation. Further, this holistic approach to analytical services can yield results more quickly and increase your team’s competence.

Through your lab, you should have open access to a network of resources and contacts that can support you and your organization—or simply keep you informed—as needs arise.

Industry Contacts

Networking should also be an extension of your laboratory’s services. Through your lab, you should have open access to a network of resources and contacts that can support you and your organization, or simply keep you informed, as needs arise. 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 with more depth and speed. Laboratory partners that uphold and maintain such relationships can more strategically guide you through technological advances and regulatory change.

Management Presence

Effective management is critical 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, a laboratory’s quality is still founded on the basic skills of the laboratory technician. Make sure that your laboratory partner maintains a strong management presence that ensures that the principles of the quality system are maintained, especially 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 from its overall knowledge base and, more importantly, with regard to available technical staff. Timely access to trained technical staff that can answer questions and provide information is directly proportional to your ability to address needs as they arise.

Dr. Warren is chief science officer for Food Safety Net Services. You can reach her at (210) 308-0675, ext. 220, or wwarren@food-safetynet.com.

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