Data, an asset for food labs to mine now

Poole: In a world of razor-thin margins, bottlenecks are bad, but data can be the lubricant that keeps production humming
Poole: In a world of razor-thin margins, bottlenecks are bad, but data can be the lubricant that keeps production humming

Related tags Food safety European union Food

During the seventh annual European Innovation Summit, EU leaders discussed worries that “emotion is trumping science” when it comes to food safety.

At the core of this debate is whether regulation in Europe is stifling innovation and hampering the EU’s potential for future growth and business leadership in an increasingly competitive global food market.

At the center of the summit debate in Brussels late last year was the crop industry and its challenge to compete without using newer technologies designed to reduce crop losses and increase yields. But the crop industry isn’t alone in its concerns about regulation stifling innovation and, equally important, growth and profitability.

The entire European food industry, and beyond, is taking a harder look at how it will adapt, as well as its current state of readiness.

It’s not just future profits that are at risk. According to the study, Food Safety in a Globalized World​, by global reinsurer Swiss Re, a 2011 E. coli outbreak in Germany reportedly cost farmers and industries $1.3bn in losses and $236m in emergency aid payments to 22 EU member states.

Regulation will certainly not ease. Transparency may put consumers at ease and certain regulations may go away or moderate, but they will be replaced by other requirements related to genetically modified organisms, pesticides, new biological threats and much more. And the spectre of recalls will be ever present. Against this backdrop, it doesn’t get any easier for food safety labs.

Relaxing standards and accommodating shortcuts isn’t an option. If anything, greater rigor will be necessary in the coming years. Innovation, particularly with respect to data, is the answer. Data mustn’t be a burden to be managed, but an asset to be mined. In a world of razor-thin margins, bottlenecks are bad, but data can be the lubricant that keeps production humming. Data enables labs to become innovation and profitability drivers.

Below are three areas to get started right away: inventory, standard operation procedures (SOPs) and traceability.

  • Inventory:​ ​Culture media, reagents and even vials for gas chromatographs – a few everyday items in a food lab that often go out of stock. But why? Most labs operate fairly routinely, running the same workflow test after test with a normal cadence. So why is inventory management hard? Inventory can be easily tracked and proactively replenished, but it requires technology that supports high-throughput testing. A laboratory information management system (LIMS) can not only track inventory as it’s used, it can also be programmed to generate alerts that warn of waning stock levels. Knowing that a reagent is almost out of stock seems trivial until hours into the latest batch stoppage when you realize how valuable that information would have been two days ago.
  • Standard Operating Procedures: ​Nowhere are standard operating procedures (SOPs) more important than in the lab. But increasingly, labs are going a step further, relying on electronic SOPs (ESOPs) as a defense against risk. Productivity also hangs in the balance, and inconsistency can lead to costly delays that erode the trust that must exist between labs and production teams. But creating ESOPs is only part of the story, and a LIMS such as SampleManager can simplify this process, defining stepwise workflows along with technical corrective actions to ensure consistency and adherence to protocol. This can enable labs to catch errors that can cost thousands before they become productivity issues.

  • Result Traceability:​ ​Nothing can grind a lab to a halt faster than having to defend a result. Was there something wrong with the consumables or instrument? What was the source of the sample? These are just some of the questions that must be answered if a result is questioned. Without answers, productivity will grind to a halt. Without a documented, unbroken chain between data and sample, something easily done within a LIMS, a result is indefensible. From barcoding through final reporting, each step must be recorded (according to SOPs) in a manner that makes it easy to trace the pathway of a sample. Now multiply this by hundreds, if not thousands of samples, and it’s clear how onerous this process can be with technology.

Data is an asset to be mined, not a burden labs must manage. When insights are derived from it, data is the answer to production bottlenecks that put labs at odds with innovation and profitability.

There are many places a food lab can turn to find and eliminate costly bottlenecks, but starting with better inventory, clearer SOPs and improved traceability is certainly a good beginning.

  • Bob Poole director of sales in EMEA for nearly six years and Informatics veteran of 16 years, Poole has a wealth of experience in technical software sales and delivering solutions to suit client requirements. His background in Chemistry and laboratories afford him a unique insight into customer and business issues.

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