The need for a third party or contract laboratory is almost a must in today’s marketplace. The word laboratory, first used in the 1600’s, comes from the Latin laboratorium, aplace that is set apart for scientific experiments, a place for labor and work. Today, we continue to see laboratories as scientific epicenters, only with much greater capacities to test things like our food supply. If you are a food processor, you know that many customers buying food products, regulations, and most Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) benchmarks require testing. The role of a laboratory is to preserve your reputation and integrity. You want to have the confidence that your testing is getting done quickly, and done right the first time. But finding the right fit for your company is easier said than done.
Choosing a Laboratory
What qualities should you look for when selecting a lab?
First you need to figure out what your needs are as a company. What type of testing do you need? Microbiology? Chemistry? Pesticides? If you need multiple types of testing, do you want to work with one lab who can do both? Most labs specialize in multiple areas.
Second, consider the specific requirement of your customers. At the end of the day, you need to create a product that you can sell to your customers. Ask your customers if they have a preference. Many customers will have a list of approved laboratories. This will help with overcoming any questions that may arise in the future with your client.
Choosing and committing to one lab can reduce administration costs, improve efficiencies, and decrease stress. That being said, your choice should be constantly reassessed to ensure they are meeting your company’s needs. Most labs are not created and operated equally. That is why I have created a list of considerations to help you make the right choice.
Making the Right Choice
When choosing a laboratory there are many factors to consider. Below is a list of 6 areas to focus on when making yours.
ISO 17025 or A2LA is an accreditation that establishes that a laboratory has an established documented way of doing things or procedures. This is an accreditation that takes in every aspect of the sample including arriving and sample receipts, all aspects during the testing, and the final report. Labs which are ISO 17025 have undergone an extensive audit that encompasses: management, quality systems, document control, subcontracting, complaints, nonconformance issues, calibrations, equipment, and service to clients. The lab should be able to provide its ISO/A2LA Certificates, it’s important to make sure they are not expired. The lab can also provide you with an approved scope of methods which have been approved under ISO.
Often, not all tests needed are covered under the scope. Labs will short cut on specific tests because of costs, equipment or another reason, so it is important to check the ISO 17025 scope. The lab can also provide you supportive analytical proficiency data especially for the matrix you are having tested.
Ability and Experience
The lab you chose should use official and recommended methods. They should also be able to explain how they came to their results, with analyses that are repeatable and reproducible. Having consistency in preparation of the sample, analysis, certificates of analysis, troubleshooting and communication, all aid in minimizing variability and help give you piece of mind. Different matrix (whole almonds in shell, whole, blanched, flour, oil, butter, and pastes) may react differently under testing conditions leading to a false positive or negative. Review the proficiency data and make sure it is done at multiple times during the year or at least if methods are being changed.
It will also be incredibly helpful for you if the laboratory has experience testing your product. With this industry knowledge, they will have a better understanding of how your product is manufactured and the known issues associated with it.
Laboratories have a vast and deep connection throughout the industry and can help support you if the need arises. They are usually involved with trade meetings and technical sessions and can support you through technological advances and regulatory changes. It’s also good to select a lab that isn’t overstretched and ends up subcontracting work out to another lab. Some labs overcommit or accept samples and send the samples to another laboratory to be processed. You cannot be certain if these labs are handling your sample in the same manner as your primary lab. If you need a specific test and it needs to get subcontracted out, just find another lab. You want the laboratory to inspire confidence in their expertise.
Good customer service should drive you to good results and make working with a lab a very easy task. Make sure the lab you choose is courteous, available, and timely in meeting your expectation. You should lay out what you expect from the lab upfront. Question the laboratories rush policies, how long it takes from a sample being submitted to a report being generated (turn-around time). You want them to be able to work with you and not take advantage of your needs. A good lab will assist you with all the testing you need and make suggestions for other tests if they have knowledge about it.
Labs can suggest and consult about environmental monitoring programs, including sampling sites, how to collect the samples and provide you with the materials to collect the samples. If you don’t have a technical expert on staff it is important to make sure they are able to interpret the data they provide you. This information should not only be used as a tool in your decisions but also be based on your company’s standards. Most laboratories offer couriers so you can have your samples picked up saving you money in shipping and letting you know the analysis will begin the same day. Look for hidden courier fees and flexibility in the lab to come to your facility when you need them there.
You want to make sure “big customers” are being serviced the same way as “small customers.” Send a comparative test of your own. Show up in person and evaluate how you are treated. It is recommended to send in samples with known results to see if you get comparable results. The best way to audit the lab is to schedule a visit. The laboratory should welcome a visit, during the visit you can meet the technicians you’re working with, evaluate the facility, and explain any questions or concerns you have. If they don’t want you to visit you don’t want to be doing business with them.
You Get What You Pay For
It is good to shop around and see the cost of the testing you need, but the cost should be one of the last things you should think about. You want to make sure you are getting the quality analysis, with great customer service and everything is done in a reasonable amount of time without being taken advantage of.
It is important to make sure the lab you choose expresses confidentiality while processing your samples. You shouldn’t see a competitor’s data, or product laying around if you visit the lab. If a testing laboratory tells you who they are working with they are most likely releasing your information too.
Working with a lab that also has a certifying body or training and consulting department can give you a broader picture of food safety and quality. If you are having an issue with a specific test, they might be able to provide you references or connect you directly with their training and consulting branch. A laboratory should always be innovative and looking for the future of testing needs. A strong research branch should be constantly validating and moving the company forward into new more sensitive areas while helping with unique needs of the industry.
Choosing a laboratory can be a daunting task, but with this article, you can begin to find clear distinctions between labs. Take your time and remember they will be representing your brand, while preserving your reputation and integrity. They could prevent a recall or be the reason for one. Working with Safe Food Alliance brings you all of this and more. Our goal is to partner with you and help you make the safest food possible.
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