Greg Blackman looks at the role LIMS, as well as data management software as a whole, plays in putting food on our plates
In contrast to home grown produce, industrial food production occurs on a large scale and at a high level of complexity. British Sugar’s four sugar beet processing plants, for instance, which are located in Norfolk and the East Midlands, operate around the clock to process 7.5 million tonnes of sugar beet between September and March every year. The sugar beet goes through a number of stages to extract and purify the sugar, and the factories are akin in complexity to refinement plants in the oil or chemical industries. As with many of these industries, data management systems come into play to maximise efficiency and provide traceability as products pass through the manufacturing process.
‘Many of the challenges that the food and beverage industry face are common to other industries, with traceability, compliance and value at their core,’ comments John Gabathuler, director, industrial and environmental at LabWare, a global company providing Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS).
An industrial food company like British Sugar will use different software packages for different tasks. According to Joseph Roamer, major account manager at LabVantage, a LIMS supplier, LIMS is best suited to providing traceability in the micro supply chain processes, managing the data surrounding individual test results carried out on raw materials, finished goods and environmental samples. Managing the macro supply chain processes, from raw materials to clearing the final produce for distribution, is typically carried out by Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software.
Safety is key
Product safety is one area of concern for food companies. Public health scandals, such as the recent salmonella outbreak in a peanut processing plant in the US, which left more than 500 people ill and led to the recall of some 400 food products, casts doubt on a product and can be costly for the company, not to mention dangerous for the consumer. Food products must be tested to ensure conformance to specifications and product safety whether they are for human or animal consumption. Colin Thurston, director of product strategy at Thermo Fisher Scientific, comments: ‘Testing must address the complete spectrum of food safety issues, including veterinary drug residues, pesticides, natural toxins such as mycotoxins and marine biotoxins, pathogens, trace elements and chemical residues including environmental pollutants.’
Thurston notes: ‘Regulatory requirements are dictated by the location of the consumer, and therefore complex testing requirements and specifications will inevitably exist where products are provided to multiple geographic markets.’ This complex backdrop of laboratory analysis means that LIMS are an essential tool for the management of laboratory results and therefore play a significant role in this process.
The European dairy products producer Müller is using Thermo Scientific’s Nautilus LIMS in its UK laboratories to manage quality control data for raw materials, inprocess samples and finished dairy desserts. Anthony Oakes, quality control manager at Müller, says: ‘Müller wanted the LIMS to assist significantly in real-time monitoring of Müller’s production processes and play a pivotal role in ensuring quality control for the finished product.’
Workflows are in place for milk reception, separation and pasteurisation. Samples are taken from the tanker upon receipt of the milk and are tested for antibiotics and composition for fats, protein, lactose and solids. Any out-of-specification parameters are reported automatically. So, for instance, if a tank fails with regards to antibiotics, it is rejected outright and Nautilus flags the results and creates a report automatically.
Oakes states that LIMS was implemented to improve the laboratory’s efficiency to cope with increased production demand. ‘By using a LIMS, Müller would be able to analyse all data and make decisions and necessary improvements much faster,’ he says.
Oakes also notes that the LIMS has the potential for integration with other business systems, and that any future rollout of corporate business solutions can be handled by the system. This flexibility to incorporate new aspects of the business was one of the values attributed to LIMS by Mike Hart, technical applications manager at British Sugar. Sugar production remains at the core of British Sugar’s operations, but the business is continually diversifying and two years ago the company branched out into bio-fuel production.
British Sugar is running LIMS software from LabWare in its central laboratories, which carries out a wide range of roles from product quality analysis through to more complex testing, such as heavy metal analysis and process support investigations.
‘One of the major considerations undertaken prior to implementation was whether to rely heavily on the vendor or to develop the software in-house,’ says Hart. British Sugar went with the latter option, which allowed greater flexibility in the system to grow to the business’s needs. Therefore, establishing the necessary processes involved in bio-fuel production was relatively straightforward.
Hart believes that updates and increasing functionality from the vendor will add more structure and value to the way the business operates. ‘As a business we implemented LIMS four years ago; there are now over a third of a million records in our system; we log around 9,000 samples per month – testimony to the value of LIMS as a record keeper.’
The brewer, Birra Peroni, part of the SAB Miller Group, implemented a LIMS solution to organise and consolidate the huge quantities of information generated from its three production sites. Birra Peroni, with headquarters in Rome, is the producer of Peroni and Nastro Azzurro and one of Italy’s top brewers producing around 6,300,000 hectolitres of beer a year. It has laboratories for chemical and microbiological analysis in each of its production sites as well as a central chemical laboratory that serves all the production sites.
Several analytical checks are performed during each phase of the production process, from raw materials to the final product. A software interface for quality data input and output was already in place prior to implementing LIMS, but this was a customised solution and not centralised.
According to Leandro Giannico, LIMS application manager at Birra Peroni, organising the data generated throughout production, which includes sampling plans, product definition and quality data from production samples, was one of the main drivers for implementing LIMS. This was especially important as the analytic control process is performed over several production departments and the central laboratories.
‘What we aimed for was to have a single database collecting all the quality-related data,’ Giannico says.
Birra Peroni is using Siemens’ Simatic IT Unilab LIMS and Giannico feels that the system provides important benefits, which reflect both strategic views as well as day-to-day practices. He says that all users now have access to sample results and data analyses are available immediately for further processing, consulting and, most importantly, for validation of the product.
‘The organisation of our work is now simpler and more efficient,’ remarks Giannico. ‘We can react now in real time and handle non-conformity alerts.’ In general, it allowed the company to achieve high quality production more efficiently as well as a reduction in the time spent on quality and process checks.
‘With traditional quality systems, based on spreadsheets or non-centralised software, it’s not rare to experience loss of data, information dispersion and errors,’ explains Giannico. Often, he says, it was not possible to retrieve older information or samples. Operating a centralised system, however, allows analysis to be carried out on older samples as well as samples from current production runs.
The central microbiology laboratory at Bakkavor carries out a range of tests on food samples for bacteria and pathogens.
Filip Schiettecat, industry manager of process industries at Siemens, notes that being able to share information automatically and synchronise workflows throughout the company is highly advantageous. The changes in a product formula, for example, affect a large number of different areas of production, from laboratory testing over the regulatory statements on the packaging to an altered production process. Siemens supplies a comprehensive range of software that can be used separately or as an integrated solution. The data management backbone running underneath allows data and workflows to be synchronised for the different stakeholders involved, which ultimately improves process efficiencies.
Another brewer, Foster’s, which operates six breweries, 16 wineries and two cideries across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific region, implemented a LIMS from LabWare to effectively manage production from raw material to finished goods across its entire product portfolio.
‘The major data management challenges revolve around data visibility and real time access to product specifications,’ explains Ian McInerney at Foster’s. ‘Data visibility has been improved by the introduction of several flexible reporting tools.’ These include automatic report generation, out of specification results and notification of completed samples can both be emailed when required, product history trending, and export of selected analytical data to company wide graphing tools. At the same time, real-time access to product specifications allows staff to be immediately aware if a result is in target, out of target, or out of specification, allowing them to take appropriate action.
Improvements in automation
Automation is another area where data management systems, like LIMS, can add value to a business. ‘Customers want to automate supply chain processes as much as possible,’ states Roamer of LabVantage. Integrating LIMS with an ERP system, for instance, removes the manual notification of the ERP to release the batch. LIMS can be configured to carry out this task automatically if all test results are within limits, thereby streamlining the entire process. LabVantage’s Sapphire LIMS has a certified integration with the SAP ERP application.
James Lockyer, LIMS coordinator at Bakkavor’s central microbiology laboratory, based in Lincolnshire, UK, cites automation as being one of the main reasons for implementing LIMS. Bakkavor Group is an international food manufacturing company specialising in freshly prepared foods and produce. Every food product line or batch undergoes routine testing as specified by the customer, whether that’s a supermarket or other food wholesalers.
The central microbiology laboratory serves 10 local Bakkavor sites and carries out a range of tests on samples for food bacteria and pathogens, as well as analysis of environmental samples, such as swabs and water samples. Newly developed products will also undergo shelf life stability testing. On an average weekday, the laboratory processes around 800 samples per day.
Bakkavor is using LIMS software from LabWare. ‘Before, LIMS the lab technician would have to write sample details and dilutions on all the agar plates manually,’ comments Lockyer. ‘Results would also have to be typed up, which was not a quick job. LIMS made turnarounds faster, mistakes were minimised and traceability was automated; any room for typos was also removed.’ Lockyer says that the labs wouldn’t be able handle the number of samples it does without the aid of LIMS.
LIMS is well established in the food and beverage industry, especially with regards to beverage companies where, according to Rob Paul, Sapphire solution manager-LIMS at LabVantage, LIMS has been used to provide consistency in the product for more than 15 years. Within that time period, the software deployed has changed from point solutions in individual laboratories, to enterprise solutions across a site and now to global solutions across the company over sites positioned worldwide. ‘There has also been a change from relatively simple, sample-centric software to more sophisticated systems,’ Paul says. For instance, Sapphire LIMS now contains CAPA (Corrective Action Preventive Action) functionality allowing the company to document problems and investigate their potential root causes.
Thurston of Thermo Fisher Scientific says: ‘Because of the most public food contamination incidents, regulatory guidelines are becoming more exacting in both the US and in Europe.’ He says that due to the increased volume of imported and exported foods, as well as the more stringent regulatory requirements, food growers, producers and manufacturers are having to master the steep learning curve of not only generating and tracking mountains of data, but also of making sense of that data and turning it into meaningful information.
‘A robust LIMS can greatly augment this learning curve by providing these companies with a means to capture the data necessary to prove compliance and to inform management of deviations in the quality of their output.’ This allows proactive steps to be taken to protect the consumer and the company’s productivity.