Analytical Testing Trends in the Food Industry

Food producers are under increasing pressure to ensure the safety of their products.

New rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) have increased the requirements to ensure that the products placed in the U.S. food supply are safe, have been tested, and that the testing has been verified and recorded. Increased health and safety risks posed by chemical, microbiological and chemical contaminants have increasingly made analytical testing methods a centerpiece of food safety programs.

The food safety testing market is projected to exceed $15 billion by 2019, with North America dominating the market in 2014. There has also been an explosion of demand in the market for rapid technologies to detect the presence of food contaminants, as they are more efficient and cost-effective compared to traditional manual, time-consuming methods.

Final FSMA Rules and Impact on Testing

Analytical testing of food products can be done to detect or confirm microbial contamination, chemical contamination, allergens, and food authenticity, and newly announced final FSMA rules are providing greater clarity on what food companies need to be doing to be compliant.

According to the final Preventive Controls for Human Food rule, facilities must implement a food safety system that includes an analysis of hazards and risk-based preventive controls. This must include a written food safety plan that includes hazard analysis of known or reasonably foreseeable biological, chemical, and physical hazards; preventive controls for processes, food allergens, and sanitation, as well as supply-chain controls and a recall plan; and oversight and management of preventive controls to include monitoring, corrective actions, and verification.

The Produce Safety Rule establishes science-based standards for growing, harvesting, packing, and holding produce that are designed to work effectively for food safety across the wide diversity of produce farms. The rule includes six key sections, including three covering testing:

  • Agricultural water and testing for microbial water quality, including generic E. coli;
  • Biological soil amendments focused on raw manure and its application; and
  • Sprouts – new testing requirements have been included to help prevent the contamination of sprouts, which have been frequently associated with foodborne illness outbreaks.

The final rule for Environmental Monitoring requires domestic and foreign facilities to “institute risk-based environmental monitoring … as appropriate to the food, the facility, and the nature of the preventive controls.” This requires that food facilities establish and implement written procedures for environmental monitoring, which must (among other requirements) identify:

  • The test microorganism(s)
  • Locations from which the samples will be collected and the number of sites to be tested during routine environmental monitoring
  • Timing and frequency for collecting and testing samples
  • The test(s) conducted, including the analytical method(s) used, and
  • The laboratory conducting the testing.

Given these new rules, let’s take a look at the broad types of analytical testing and some of the trends shaping this sector.

Microbial contamination testing

Over the past few decades, foodborne illnesses associated with Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coliO157:H7 have become part of the daily news. Salmonella is the number one pathogen of concern in the U.S., causing over 19,000 hospitalizations each year, and costing an estimated $3.7 billion annually in medical costs for Americans. This places Salmonella at the top of the rankings for the 15 most costly foodborne illnesses. Salmonella contamination is most commonly associated with eggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, raw fruits and vegetables, spices and nuts.

Chemical contamination testing

Public awareness of chemical contaminants in their food is also increasing, with recent reports about arsenic in apple juice and rice; acrylamide in processed potatoes and cereals; and pesticide residues in food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed an action level of 10 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic in apple juice, and regular testing has indicated that current levels in apple juice in the market below these levels do not cause immediate or short-term health effects. Acrylamide has long been a part of the human diet, particularly in potatoes and cereals and other carbohydrate-rich food, and analysis of acrylamide has numerous challenges due to interfering matrixes in the starch that’s inherent to such foods. A few of the more prevalent issues of concern include pesticides, toxins, veterinary drugs, and heavy metals.

In addition, the USDA and the FDA have been encouraging voluntary reductions in the use of antibiotics commonly used in livestock production. These policies are aimed at reducing antibiotic resistance in humans. The government is closely monitoring the food supply for antibiotic use as many common antibiotics are banned from use in the food supply.

Allergen testing

In the U.S., the “Big 8” allergens must be clearly tested for and listed in plain English in the ingredient list if the food contains them. These include peanut, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. Food intolerances such as lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance and celiac disease are also on the rise, with the latter being the most common genetic disease in Europe. Food manufacturers must provide detailed information about the contents, additives, and cross-contamination risks for all food products. In addition, they must follow strict government regulations, which vary throughout the world. All this has contributed to increased demand for allergen testing in food products. This area is expanding rapidly into advanced instrumentation techniques, such as LC-MS/MS where automation will pay a pivotal role.

Food fraud and authenticity testing

In this era of globalization in which the food supply knows no boundaries, consumers are increasingly interested in the safety, quality and authenticity of everything they purchase. Recent alerts reported in the media regarding food imports from specific countries have put sharp focus on the identification of origin as a first step in ensuring food safety.

Economically motivated adulteration of food, or food fraud, has been estimated to cost the food industry up to $40 billion per year and this cost is borne by industry, regulators and, ultimately, consumers. Thus detection of fraud – whether in honey, milk products, olive oil, spices, or seafood – is critical for ensuring safety and quality of food products. The cost of a recall may be large, the cost of protecting a global brand name is priceless.

The food industry continues to feel the impact of the new FSMA rules, and consumers demand greater transparency and information when it comes to the food they eat. Analytical testing of food products is poised for great growth due to the sheer number of commodities and their complexity. The food industry is seeking rapid testing methods that are cost-effective and highly accurate. Using new and advanced techniques that are highly automated is the only manageable path forward.

For a deeper conversation about how GERSTEL solutions or automation can help you meet the latest FDA regulations on food safety, feel free to reach out.