Industry experts and laboratory equipment suppliers make their predictions on how the laboratory of the future will look like and the changing role of the Laboratory Analyst.
In a world facing the ever-pressing challenge of food security, experts from across the globe gathered to discuss the pivotal role that laboratories play in ensuring access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food.
At the heart of the discussion was the fundamental concept of food security, a term often used but not always fully understood. As the event’s host eloquently stated, food security means that “all people at all times have access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food to enable them to lead a healthy life.” It’s a goal that remains elusive for far too many around the world.
Laboratories are instrumental in ensuring the safety and quality of the food we consume daily. Their role was extensively discussed in a panel discussion that brought together industry professionals and technology experts from laboratory equipment and solutions suppliers.
Some of the notable participants included Grace Namagembe who serves as a Quality Assurance Manager and Food Safety Team Leader at Biyinzika Poultry International Limited in Uganda, Professor George Abong’, an Associate Professor of Food Science at the University of Nairobi and the Chairperson of the Food Science and Technology Platform in Kenya (FoSTeP_K), Peter Mutuku, who holds the position of Technical Director at Sorela Scientific East Africa Limited.
Others include Mr. Sylvester Gule, the Managing Director of Nesvax Innovations Limited, Mr. Rushabh Shah, Director at FNS Scientific, Mr. Robert Ng’eno, Head of Technical Services & Product Application at Sorela Scientific East Africa Limited, and Mr. Owen Fraser, Past President, AOAC Africa Section.
Each panelist emphasized the critical role laboratories play in ensuring food safety and quality throughout the entire food supply chain, from farm to fork. They stressed that food safety concerns can arise at any stage of this chain, underscoring the importance of comprehensive solutions.
Laboratories as enablers of food safety and quality
Rushabh Shah, representing FNS Scientific, highlighted that food safety and quality must be addressed holistically, involving all stakeholders in the food industry.
“When we talk of food quality and food safety, it’s not only at the final step where the consumer goods manufacturer has to look after safety. Even the goods being supplied from the supermarket to your home nowadays with deliveries can also pose food safety issues if not handled well,” he stated.
As the panelists shared their insights, it became evident that laboratories are indispensable in the pursuit of global food security. They are not only enablers of safe and sufficient food but also the guardians of our health and well-being.
Mr. Sylvester Gule, the Director of Nesvax Innovations Limited in Kenya emphasized the changing demographics in laboratory teams. Traditionally male-dominated, the industry is now seeing a more balanced gender ratio, with a growing number of women and younger analysts entering the field. This diversity brings fresh perspectives and demands for efficiency and speed.
Advancements in Laboratory Testing Technologies
The field of laboratory testing and quality assurance has witnessed significant advancements in recent years, driven by the need for faster, more accurate, and efficient testing methods. In the discussion, experts in the industry shed light on the modern testing methodologies and equipment that are transforming the landscape of quality control.
The panelists noted that manufacturers are developing cutting-edge equipment, software, and hardware to provide quicker and more accurate results. Virtual reality (VR) support systems are being integrated to offer remote assistance and ensure maximum uptime for equipment. Artificial intelligence and big data are becoming integral to laboratory analysis. These technologies enhance the speed and accuracy of data analysis, making laboratory results comparable on a global scale.
Addressing a long-standing challenge in Africa, Mr. Gule emphasized the importance of local support for laboratory equipment. This ensures that laboratories can maintain equipment effectively, minimizing downtime and ensuring consistent quality testing.
Rapid Testing Solutions
One of the key developments in laboratory testing is the advent of rapid testing solutions. Mr. Gule emphasized the importance of speed without compromising accuracy.
“These rapid solutions deliver results in a matter of minutes and are cost-effective, making them a valuable asset in industries such as food production, where time is of the essence. They provide initial insights into product safety, allowing manufacturers to make informed decisions quickly,” he said.
Underscoring the importance of rapid methods, Mr. Fraser noted that these methods are excellent for monitoring. However, he pointed out that for compliance purposes, laboratories need to use reference methods.
“The lab in the bag is great and cuts down on a lot of time you will need to release a product line. But you still need to have a reference method to use. In whatever methods you use, you must make sure that the methods are fit for purpose, and you must validate the performance,” he stressed.
Complex, High-Accuracy Solutions
While rapid testing solutions are vital, there is a place for more complex and high-accuracy methods. In situations where the highest level of precision is required, these methods come into play. Mr. Gule stressed that the choice between rapid and complex testing depends on the context. For example, when dealing with perishable goods like dairy products, manufacturers benefit from quicker results. However, for comprehensive assurance, they may use more intricate methods to validate the initial findings.
In whatever methods you use, you must make sure that the methods are fit for purpose and you must validate the performance.
Owen Fraser – Former President AOAC Africa
Microbiology testing has faced unique challenges due to the time required for microbial growth and identification. Traditional methods involve culturing bacteria for 24 to 72 hours before analysis. However, companies like Neogen have pioneered rapid automated microbiology techniques. These techniques leverage indicators that appear within hours instead of days, significantly reducing the testing timeline. This innovation is especially crucial in ensuring the safety of dairy products, where shelf life is limited.
Mr. Owen also enlightened on the rise of nucleic acid testing in microbiology saying, “What’s exciting about this new technology is that it uses nucleic acid detection pre-enrichment. So you are able to test for multiple organisms in a multiplex format, shortening the detection time.”
A recurring theme in the discussion was the importance of meeting consumer needs. Mr. Sylvester highlighted that consumers expect quality and safety in the products they purchase. Manufacturers, in turn, aim to deliver products to market as quickly as possible while maintaining the highest standards. Rapid testing methods and automation enable manufacturers to release products sooner, extending their shelf life and providing consumers with safer options.
The Role of Robotics, AI, and Automation
As technology continues to advance, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and automation are becoming integral to laboratory testing. Mr. Mutuku, another industry expert, emphasized that testing is not solely about acquiring data but also about making informed decisions.
“Speed and accuracy are paramount, and these technological advancements are instrumental in achieving reproducible results,” he echoed.
Hygiena, an international company specializing in such technologies, showcased innovations that are revolutionizing the industry. Their bio-luminal genic assay counts bacteria in the lag phase, significantly reducing the time required for testing. Furthermore, real-time PCR technology has proven invaluable, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, where rapid testing was essential for containment efforts. These technologies enable pathogen testing in hours rather than days, enhancing overall efficiency and safety.
Affordability and Accessibility
A crucial aspect of adopting these advanced technologies is affordability. Mr. Ahmed, representing Hygiena, revealed that the costs of implementing real-time PCR technology can be as low as U.S.$ 21,000, making it accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The bio-luminal genic assay is also budget-friendly, with prices starting at approximately US$ 2,800.
Blockchain technology in laboratories
The panelists also delved into the impact of blockchain technology on traceability and data management in food laboratories.
Blockchain technology has emerged as a potential game-changer in enhancing traceability in the food supply chain. By utilizing blockchain, it becomes possible to create an unbroken digital trail of a product’s journey from farm to table. This transparency can greatly aid in identifying and addressing safety concerns.
Blockchain technology also allows for the secure sharing of testing and quality data among stakeholders, including regulators. This can streamline the process of audits and verifications, ensuring that food products meet the required safety standards.
“This requires an integrated Quality Management System (QMS) in which the lab plays a very important part of.
“Unfortunately we’re very far away from that because we will need to establish a network where labs are willing to share fundamental data coming out of whatever test they’re doing in order to enable traceability,” Mr. Fraser said.
Boosting capacity and competency of Labs
Mr. Mutuku affirmed that traceability of testing and quality control has become increasingly difficult, raising concerns about the integrity of the food supply chain.
One key element in addressing this challenge, as per the panelists, is boosting the capacity and competence of laboratories. Laboratories need to be adequately equipped with state-of-the-art instruments and technology to perform a wide range of tests. However, having advanced equipment is not enough; the personnel operating these instruments must be well-trained and competent.
The training of analysts is vital to ensure the reliability of test results. It’s not just about having the right equipment; it’s about having skilled professionals who can operate these instruments effectively and interpret the results accurately. The food industry needs to invest in continuous training and development programs to keep laboratory staff updated with the latest techniques and methodologies.
Nevertheless, as Mr. Fraser highlights, there’s no skill greater than that of integrity in a lab technologist. “We most often don’t even think of that,” he stated.
Government policymakers and regulatory bodies also play a critical role in shaping the future of food safety and security. These stakeholders must work in tandem with the food industry to establish and enforce standards and regulations that ensure the highest levels of safety and quality.
Equipment manufacturers and suppliers have a significant role in supporting the food industry’s laboratories. They must provide not only high-quality instruments but also comprehensive support and maintenance services. This support should include training for laboratory personnel, timely supply of consumables, and efficient repair and maintenance services.
Making It Accessible and Affordable
One of the central concerns voiced during the panel discussion was the prohibitive cost of laboratory testing equipment and consumables.
Mr. Mutuku emphasized that testing equipment can be exceedingly expensive. For laboratory testing to reach its full potential and benefit as many people as possible, it’s crucial to find ways to lower these costs.
“Consider the scenario where a single piece of equipment is valued at 20 million shillings. If this investment doesn’t translate into increased testing, it raises questions about the practicality of such an expenditure. Hence, the urgent need to find solutions to reduce both equipment and consumable costs.”
To address the cost issue, panelists also suggested looking to governments for assistance. Governments play a significant role in regulating and taxing laboratory equipment and supplies.
By exploring means of reducing taxation, it becomes more feasible for laboratories to afford the necessary equipment. This could pave the way for a more equitable distribution of testing resources.
The Future of Laboratories
Mr. Rushabh painted an exciting vision of the laboratory of the future. He predicted a shift towards fully automated laboratories, where human intervention becomes minimal.
With the potential of automation in laboratory processes, the role of laboratory professionals may evolve. Instead of primarily focusing on conducting tests, they may pivot towards interpreting and utilizing the wealth of data generated.
This shift emphasizes the importance of understanding the information derived from tests and making meaningful decisions based on it.
Ultimately, the future of laboratory testing is driven by consumer needs. As Sylvester aptly noted, everything in the field revolves around what the consumers require. Whether it’s lowering costs, adopting new technologies, or forming partnerships, these efforts should be directed toward making laboratory testing more accessible and beneficial for the end users.
This feature appeared in the October 2023 issue of Food Safety Africa. You can read the magazine HERE