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Informatics bites back

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From safety and nutrition to contamination and complaints, the food and beverage industry deals with it all. Rebecca Pool talks to key players to find out exactly why informatics systems are now so crucially important

Arsenic. Not the kind of substance anyone would want to eat, but according to recent research from the UK-based Institute for Global Food Security, around 58 per cent of rice-based products in the UK exceed recommended European Union limits for children.

This latest statistic to hit media reports highlights one of the many issues that food and drink companies, worldwide, face today. Food scares – think BSE, horsemeat, and campylobacter-contaminated poultry – coupled with heightened media attention mean industry players are under close public scrutiny.

Throw in consumer interest in nutrition, strict labelling regulations, and the onus is now firmly on producers to prevent, rather than react to, contamination. So it’s easy to see why laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are more important than ever before.

‘In many cases, lab managers are under pressure to meet certain nutritional profiles,’ said Graham McGibbon from Canada-based laboratory software provider, Advanced Chemistry Development (ACD/Labs). ‘Take the move away from soda pops and towards natural beverages: how do you make something that appeals to consumers and what do you use as your ingredients? How do you track the chemical components in your beverage, and do you even know what’s in your competitors’ product?’

McGibbon is certain queries such as these are driving demand for informatics systems. As he puts it: ‘[Laboratory staff] need information on their scientific activities and they want to lay their hands on entire sets of information all at once, without having to track backwards inconveniently. [Informatics] platforms can, for example, bring different kinds of data together on a single interface, so instead of going back to different instruments in the lab, you can search a single informatics system for your data.’

With easy access to information in mind, ACD/Labs’ ‘Spectrus’ platform combines raw or processed data from various techniques and instruments, such as chromatography and spectroscopy, across laboratories into a single environment ready for analysis. Analytical and chemical data can be combined with a researcher’s interpretations, offering insight at any stage in a project. And at the same time, chemical handling and nomenclature tools maintain the chemical context of experiments.

Clearly such informatics systems can save a lab manager time and money, and boost production efficiencies, but underlying any practice is the all-important issue of safety. With this in mind, ACD/Labs has developed its ‘Percepta’ platform. Designed for researchers synthesising new products, the systems predict the physiochemical and toxicity properties of novel compounds.

‘Safety issues can arise from many sources such as packaging, raw materials, contaminants or unexpected degradation,’ says McGibbon. ‘Also, problems don’t just come from new chemicals, it could also be familiar chemicals under certain circumstances.’

‘Safety has to be one of the most important criteria for lab managers, and Percepta allows predictions of safety, in terms of possible toxicities, solubilities and physical properties of chemicals,’ he adds.

Danica Reynaud is chief executive of US-based Authentechnologies, a small, three-person strong business, that uses DNA sequence-based technologies to test the authenticity of species from different natural products. As Reynaud simply states: ‘We work with dietary supplement companies, food companies and their suppliers to make sure that the ingredients are the right thing.’

For the chief executive, safety is key. ‘Everything we do traces back to safety. We now find ourselves dealing more and more with different types of fraud, adulteration, contamination, even infestation by insects,’ she says. ‘So customers are using us for authentication of a material, and that’s really to ensure it’s safe and they have a high-quality product.’

Staff carry out botanical and meat genetic ID testing, microscopic analysis, GMO screening, and other analyses, tracking some 300 tests a month, using a laboratory information management system called GoLIMS developed by US-based GoInformatics. Having used the system for almost two years, Reynaud asserts it is now critical to the day-to-day running of her laboratory and ensuring customer safety.

‘We’ve just been audited for compliance with ISO 17025 [testing for technical compliance] and working with manufacturers of food and supplements, we also have to comply with the FDA’s current good manufacturing practices [CGMP],’ she says. ‘The LIMS complies with all of these... We now talk about how we couldn’t function without LIMS, and this one has been an easy way to get everything on the same page.’

As Reynaud outlines it, their LIMS is a cloud-based system, which suits her company very well. ‘This isn’t the kind of stodgy old system that costs you $20,000 to just get the design and then you need a dedicated PC to run it and have all the back-up,’ she says. ‘It helps us store all of our data without having to worry about huge IT infrastructure.’

‘LIMS can be very complex and expensive, but for a small company likes ours, this one is feasible,’ she adds.

As Reynaud explains, the LIMS logs all client information – from contact information to sample and test data – that is inputted to the company website, enabling employees to track information easily. ‘If somebody takes a gel picture of the DNA, they can upload it to GoLIMS... provide a sample number and see everything that has ever happened to that sample within seconds,’ she says.

Given these benefits and the system’s cost-effectiveness, Reynaud reckons, given time, cloud-based LIMS will become more popular. ‘We work on Macs and our laboratory notebooks are iPads,’ she highlights. ‘We can enter information from here or anywhere, monitor what’s going on in the lab and see results in a real-time scenario. This has allowed us to work more efficiently and flexibly.’

The need for speed

US-based LabVantage has been developing laboratory informatics systems for more than 30 years, having recently released LabVantage7, which it describes as the most flexible LIMS in the market. The company’s clients include food and beverage industry heavyweights, such as Britvic, American Crystal Sugar, Danone, Dairygold, and Chobani Yogurt, and according to senior product manager, Dan Call, his business is all about speed.

‘In a food and beverage manufacturing environment, things are moving really fast,’ he says. ‘I walked through a dairy plant recently and it’s incredible the number of gallons of milk that are produced every day, labelled and sent out of the door.’

‘Be it yogurt, milk, butter, or meat, the product has a very short shelf-life and time is critical,’ he adds. ‘So manufacturers are always looking to increase productivity and improve the quality of their product and what they are doing in the laboratory.’

As a result, Call is adamant that a crucial part of any LIMS system is to integrate seamlessly with a manufacturer’s enterprise system. A typical client’s company will be spread across several sites, have centralised systems, and will want to deal with data in real time.

‘Interfacing with enterprise resource planning and manufacturing execution systems is key and the LIMS must provide real-time communication,’ he says. ‘If you’re manufacturing really fast and it takes an hour to get information on, say, a specification failure back to a line, then you could end up with an hour of wasted product that has to be re-worked or even thrown out.’

‘But [our LIMS] would trigger that information automatically to the manufacturing system in real-time, so the process is stopped, adjusted or put on hold,’ he adds.

Call believes that efficiency is also critical to the food and beverage manufacturers of today, and again LIMS can help by connecting different instrumentation, and importantly, streamlining a process.

‘A laboratory may not have a LIMS, or may be using Excel or an older form of LIMS, which involves typing a value several times before it goes into, say, a certificate of analysis,’ he says. ‘Our LIMS system removes the possibility of transcription errors and eliminates redundancy.’

Call also believes that a key aspect of any LIMS includes flexible reporting, be it a certificate of analysis, shift analysis, or weekly out-of-specification report. Laboratory managers typically require a customised document, and so-called dashboard views offer highly personalised information typically via a bar chart or scatter plot, so, for example, a product manager can assess sample turnaround.

But on his travels across the food and beverage industry, Call has also noticed very real changes in consumer demands. ‘There was a time in the world of LIMS when everyone wanted to build their own system but now we’ve come back full circle,’ he says. ‘Today, every customer wants ‘out-of-the-box’ capabilities with configuration to ensure the system is upgradeable, but as little customisation as possible.’

Pointing to barcode labels, he says: ‘This is pretty standard technology nowadays, but a client might still want different-sized sample labels depending on what he or she is handling.’

Call also reckons queries over validation from a regulatory point of view are rising, so much so, his company now offers pre-validation as part of its LIMS. ‘We can go through the complete CGMP validation and provide all the pre-validated documents based on our out-of-the-box product,’ he says.

‘I don’t think the food and drink industry will ever be regulated as much as pharma,’ he adds. ‘But ultimately validation can take as long as an actual LIMS implementation, so for time-critical processes, offering pre-validation is welcomed.’

Handling complaints

Graham McGibbon from ACD/Labs is also seeing a strong demand for configurable LIMS, but for him, the biggest change for the industry has been public expectations. Just as laboratory managers now use myriad personal devices, such as laptops, tablets and iPads, to access a wealth of laboratory data in real-time, the general public also expects results instantly.

‘In the past, people knew that if they registered a complaint, it could take weeks to receive a reply as such affairs could be complicated,’ he says. ‘But today the public has information at its fingertips, so has an expectation that a company also has information about its products at its fingertips,’ he says.

So can today’s LIMS deliver? It’s clearly a tall order, and as McGibbon adds: ‘Are public expectations realistic? Now that’s a good question.’

But realistic or not, without a doubt, public expectations are making today’s LIMS all the more important to managers of laboratories worldwide, big and small.

Informatics in action

Dr Nicola Wilson heads up a team of microbiologists at UK-based Westward Laboratories, who test a host of finished food products, including ready-meals, sandwiches, cooked pies, and desserts. Carrying out more than 30,000 microbiological tests and 7,000 pathogen tests every month, the team uses Matrix Gemini LIMS, developed by UK-based Autoscribe, together with a laboratory automation system from Kiestra Lab Automation, The Netherlands, to handle the lab’s automation and analytical needs.

As Wilson explains, samples are fully barcoded by the LIMS -- which provides all information on that sample as well as required tests -- and then placed in cold storage. Prior to testing, the microbiologists scan the sample through a virtual fridge, so they can track the time the sample was tested and who tested it.

During automated testing, all relevant sample carriers passing through the Kiestra line are barcoded via the LIMS, so test results can easily be inputted against the correct sample. Real-time barcoding has reduced transcription error rates to only one in 36 trillion characters and importantly for Wilson, the system has also helped the laboratory become paperless.

‘We use the LIMS for pretty much everything, not just pulling off data from our testing, but also generating reports,’ she says. ‘You log in and log out of the system, which from a traceability point of view is key, we use it for data capture and analysis, and we can export data to Crystal Reports [a business intelligence application] for trending, which is hugely important to our customers.’

Crucially, the system speeds up the flow of data from the laboratory to Westward’s customers. ‘It’s a challenge to use data in a meaningful way, and get the most from your data,’ adds Wilson. ‘But with LIMS we can quickly get that data from the lab to the customer in a format that they can work with.’