Automated LIMS solution facilitates quality control in the food supply chain

1st April 2013

For today's food companies the industry is constantly changing and evolving. Food manufacturers, distributors and retailers are striving to satisfy the growing demand for high quality, safe food. With today's far reaching and complex food supply chain, there is an increasing need to find more effective solutions to better protect consumers by preventing intentional and unintentional food contamination.

It has been estimated that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325 000 hospitalisations and 5000 deaths in the USA alone each year. Following the numerous recent contamination scares for foods such as peanut butter, milk and pork it is vital that companies develop strategies to ensure the safety of food. In order to safeguard people's health, global regulatory bodies have introduced and enforced stringent regulations and rules.

As a result, companies in the food industry must perform rigorous, real-time product safety testing. A robust laboratory information management system (LIMS) can produce fast and accurate results and enable real-time access to critical laboratory information spread across disparate locations, thus ensuring prompt identification of safety hazards while accelerating productivity and time-to-market.

Laboratories in the food industry play an important role in the food safety compliance process. They compare laboratory test results against specifications to ensure food safety and integrity and limit the extent of product recalls.

Reports that detail the results of such analyses must be disseminated to both consumers and regulators in a timely manner. Traceability of batches and speed of analysis are of utmost importance. Critical control points require monitoring, verification and recordkeeping. LIMS solutions efficiently address all these requirements.

Food companies need a LIMS with increased flexibility and the ability to meet the needs of the broader organisation. An ideal LIMS is one that serves as an integrated platform capable of supporting key enterprise processes and systems, facilitating open communication with laboratory and enterprise applications and offering client/server functionality for greater access to information across the organisation. With an enterprise LIMS, food processing companies can spot trends and monitor product quality more quickly and easily, dramatically improving their overall quality control process. An integrated approach results in better data flow, less redundant data, virtually no transcription errors and increased laboratory efficiency. Data are available to managers and decision-makers organization-wide, leading to faster, data-driven business decision-making.

A global solution helps reduce the total cost of ownership by centralising and consolidating IT and technical support personnel. An enterprise LIMS reduces downtime and increases productivity for the end-user. Lower costs are also achieved in the areas of implementation, upgrades, application development and training.

In addition, standardisation streamlines vendor relationships and improves purchasing power. The reporting function is one of the most important features of a LIMS solution. Laboratory information captured and processed by a LIMS can be organised and presented automatically using a wide variety of report formats, by many different parts of the organisation.

One of the world's leading dairy product manufacturers needed a LIMS capable of ensuring optimum quality control in its yogurt products. Making the transition from a manual system that's essentially paper-based to one which automates almost every quality control (QC) sample check and reporting process is a major undertaking for any company. With UK production over 1.8 billion pots of yogurt per year, the time was ripe for change at Müller and Thermo Fisher Scientific provided the solution.

Molkerei Alois Müller (UK) is a market leader in European dairy products. The Müller UK production facility at Market Drayton produces more than a third of all yoghurt eaten in the UK.

The company's UK labs are mainly focused on production QC but also test product from the start. Milk from farms arrives by tanker and is passed by pumps into silos, then separated into skim milk and cream, and some skim into concentrate. Yoghurt mixes are made in tanks and batch sterilised. If the batch meets specifications, it is processed through a heat exchanger, cooled, and placed in an incubation tank where culture is added. Every step in the process undergoes quality checks. During incubation, the pH is monitored and checked every two hours. After eight to nine hours of incubation, the pH has dropped and a final pH check is made when the yoghurt is cooled. With the checks being performed and recorded manually, there were many places a LIMS could be used to automate and expedite the QC tasks.

The decision to implement a LIMS was driven by the increase in production demand, and justified by the need to increase the lab's efficiency (Fig. 1). Müller UK's paper-based system for tracking and reporting QC data was supplemented by Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program. A LIMS would dramatically reduce the amount of error-prone paperwork and expedite testing. The LIMS was also expected to assist significantly in real-time monitoring of Müller's production processes and play a pivotal role in ensuring quality control for finished product. By using a LIMS, Müller would be able to trend all data and make decisions and necessary improvements much faster.

The company selected the LIMS to manage QC data for raw materials, in process, and finished dairy desserts. Integrating the LIMS with as many pieces of the lab equipment as possible allows for automated data transfer and additional efficiencies. The milk reception processes managed by the LIMS were developed to include bar-coding samples from the tankers upon receipt, checking the milk for antibiotics, and checking the milk composition for fats, protein, lactose, and solids. Any out-of-specification parameters can be reported automatically. For instance, if a tank fails antibiotics, it gets rejected outright; the LIMS flags the result as being out-of-spec and creates a report automatically.

Müller UK's Information Technology (IT) team was actively involved in the LIMS selection and implementation, and worked closely with the lab team to select and implement the LIMS. In fact, there's a dedicated IT person to ensure the integrity of the solution. IT reviewed distribution of all the QC information, people were asked for their requirements, and then they were provided with the appropriate reports. With the LIMS, IT determined the access privileges to the data, which included sample reports, daily averages, and moving averages. These are all read-only and certain reports such as sales are restricted to a for-your-eyes-only status that can only be accessed by certain levels with authority to do so. The reports are more accurate and stay consistent within the system.

Summary and conclusion

An enterprise-wide standardisation on LIMS can provide immediate benefits with regards to productivity, information sharing, accelerated sample processing and electronic reporting capture. Implementing a LIMS has helped Müller UK's lab to not only meet production demands with equanimity but will also position them to meet future challenges. The LIMS has the potential for integration with other business systems and with a LIMS in place, the lab is confident that it can meet any future challenges. Food companies need to conduct accurate, continuous testing and have the data readily available in order to comply with the regulations.

- Colin Thurston is Director of Product Strategy, Process Industries at Thermo Fisher Scientific, Altrincham, UK.





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