Life in the lab
Following a visit to i2 FAST’s new UK lab, New Food’s Editor, Bethan Grylls, recaps her conversation with its Chief Commercial Officer on the lab’s ethos and process.
In an ideal world, what would your testing lab look like? How can we design a facility with minimal risk of contamination, that is specifically built to reduce hazards? These were the questions i2 FAST asked during the planning and launch of its new laboratory in Hemel Hempstead, UK.
The Maxted House lab in Hemel Hempstead is an impressive 27,000sq/ft building which takes the company’s ethos of ‘transparency’ to a new level with its largely glass structure. To further reduce contamination risk within the microbiology department, all external glass comprises two layers to prevent environmental air from entering. Each door is also labelled so that visiting customers can understand the process better.
This level of understanding the entire lab journey is a notion the company encourages among its employees too. “We wanted to make sure that i2 FAST workers see the whole lifecycle of the sample so that they understand what the results mean, in relation to the product and the customer,” the Chief Commercial Officer at i2 FAST told New Food.
Understanding the benefits of each team member being trained in all aspects of the process is fundamental in ensuring a robust training platform that provides maximum flexibility within the laboratory, according to i2 FAST. It also creates opportunities for staff to move around different parts of the process, while continually furthering their education of the industry.
The company found itself in a unique position. Where many labs are historical buildings with little room to grow, the space at i2 FAST has allowed investment in newer innovations and provides significant scope for expansion in the future.
How i2 FAST operates
The i2 FAST business model adopts a multi-site business model – with one laboratory in the UK and a second in Poland. The extremely time sensitive work (eg, microbiology) is carried out in the UK facility, while other testing, such as nutritional, occurs in Poland.
Everything arrives at the UK lab and is received and checked, and then forwarded to the relevant testing department. A twice-a-day internal logistics service carries samples to Poland overnight, ensuring working time is not lost.
When building Maxted House, i2 FAST incorporated a ‘continuous flow’ process; samples travel fluidly from one stage to the next, and in only one direction. This mitigates any risk of cross contamination between processed and non-processed samples.
The first stage of this flow is the sample reception area, where samples are checked in to the lab. As a UKAS accredited lab, i2 FAST provides full traceability of the sample from receipt to report.
The barcode tracking provides the laboratory staff with the relevant test information at every stage
Samples are labelled on receipt with barcodes, linked to the information held in the laboratory data management system. This means there is full data protection and samples are not treated differently from one another in the laboratory.
Samples are batched in groups of 10, providing confidence that samples are outside of their chilled environment for the minimum amount of time, reducing bacterial growth that can come from a broken chill chain.
For example, bacteria can duplicate once every 20 minutes under ‘ideal’ situations. It is therefore important that samples do not sit on the bench as it can result in anomalous results at the final stage. With vertical and horizontal traceability, auditing a sample and looking at every other sample in that batch can be completed very quickly. According to i2 FAST, a lab unable to perform horizontal audits cannot tell you with 100 percent certainty there is not a chance of contamination.
Micro vs pesticides
Everything that arrives at the lab is scanned using a barcode system, which reviews customer details from the system and allocates the required information for the next stage(s). This avoids human error that can arise as a result of handwritten labels or manual matching of samples. The samples are then sent to the appropriate area within the facility, eg, the microbiology or pesticide lab.
Waste is something i2 FAST considered as part of its laboratory functions and is in line with its environmental policy. Utilising novel methodologies, the amount of plastic and media is significantly reduced, which in turn, reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfill or clinical waste disposal sites. As well as this, the organic food waste is disposed of using anaerobic digestion, creating energy which can be used elsewhere.
The barcode tracking provides the laboratory staff with the relevant test information at every stage, removing the decision-making process and increasing the accuracy of analysis in the laboratory.
Confidence in the technical accuracy of results is via significant and in-depth validation across a multitude of different food types. Every food type can interact with media and tests in different ways. Inhibition and matrix effects need to be understood and known to ensure false negatives, as well as false positives, are not obtained. Extensive quality control is undertaken to make sure that the available methods work for every kind of product.
Homogeneity of the sample and ensuring that a representative sample is tested is the key to obtaining an accurate result
Innovation and technology are key in creating a high throughput laboratory with minimal errors. i2 FAST invested in high spec equipment, from pharmaceutical grade incubators to the most up to date MALDI TOF equipment for confirmations. Each item of equipment was selected for its ability to meet the company’s requirement of rapid turnaround, providing results to customers in the fastest possible time; from one-day Salmonella and Listeria tests, to a three-day yeast and mould method, which is particularly useful to customers who undertake positive release processes.
In the analysis of pesticides, the company uses both high end LC MS/MS and GC-MS/MS to create a multi residue pesticide screen, as well as a sizeable screen of single residues that cannot be included within the routine analysis.
The pesticide testing screen includes non-approved key actives and actives of concern among retailers, as specified in the RAG lists, and those monitored by the UK government and EU surveillance schemes.
Homogeneity of the sample and ensuring that a representative sample is tested is the key to obtaining an accurate result, which is then representative of the whole batch. Ideally, 1kg of sample should be provided for homogenisation, from which the testing will be carried out.
The pesticides laboratory holds flexible scope by UKAS, allowing the business to react quickly and flexibly to industry needs and new and emerging issues. By following a defined set of guidelines the laboratory is able to report as UKAS (Flexible Scope), pending review during the annual audit.
Challenges and ethos
Price point has been a challenge for the contract testing industry for around a decade. Customers are constantly chasing lower prices, whilst requiring greater levels of accuracy and technical/consultancy input. The perception of ‘what a laboratory is’ needs to be addressed. According to i2 Fast, a lot of people expect labs “to churn out” samples as quickly as possible, but that is not this lab’s ethos. Among i2 FAST’s core business ethics is the maintainance of food integrity and understanding what it is that its clients want to achieve. “People have lost sight of what labs are about – that they are there to maintain safety and be honest, providing excellent quality advice in the event of failed or anomalous results, allowing the customer to make solid business decisions based on good quality data,” i2 FAST told New Food.
There is a box-ticking mentality in the UK, the Chief Commercial Officer said. “Britain has very stringent regulations, but if anything, people are following these too closely and missing the wider issues. They are testing for something because they have been told to, or because it has been done that way historically, but they have no understanding as to why they need to test for it.”
Finding a lab partner
When looking for a lab partner, i2 FAST believes it is crucial to understand why you are carrying out an analysis. If your primary driver is cost, then the customer will be looking for a laboratory to undertake analysis as cheaply as possible. However, if you are looking to have a business where you can understand the risks and obtain value from testing to advance your company, you need to have partner that can advise you from a technical point of view and provide value-adding testing solutions.
i2 FAST falls in the latter. “We can do all the testing quickly and accurately, but we are really here to be a game-changer, to help you understand why you are testing and provide you with insight. Why are you looking for Listeria…because you have been told to, or because you are looking to mitigate a risk?”
For i2 FAST the aim is to empower its partners, so they understand the process, the data and what to do next.