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quality control laboratory needed for food processing in each FBO unit

Just like any other industry, food industry too strives to satisfy the customer with quality and safety of food products. In order to achieve this, the food industry needs to assure the quality of their product. Quality assurance comes from quality control, which is essentially how you control the various specifications laid down on the processing and the product. For example, the colour of the tomato paste is normally assured by measuring the Hunter colour values using a Hunter colorimeter and shall meet the laid down a/b value. This way of conforming makes it universal and enables the industry to produce uniform quality product.
Need for QC Lab in every FBO unit
It is a morally bound duty of every FBO to have a quality control laboratory in his/her unit to test the basic critical quality parameters of product before releasing in the market. External testing and monitoring day to day production is next to impossible and would also be very costly.
Moreover, the risk of getting bad results and thus releasing an unsafe food product to the consumer would also increase in case of a frequent external laboratory testing. It is also recommended to compare the external laboratory test results with the in-house testing. In-house testing facility would also increase the FBO confidence and reduce customer complaints in future. In-house laboratory would also help in developing products/ processes to improve customer satisfaction. In house quality control laboratory helps in successfully implementing a quality plan.
Making a Quality Plan
In order to achieve good quality control and further good quality assurance, it is necessary to have a well laid out quality plan, just like a building plan for the successful construction of a good building! Quality plan is essentially a plan to control quality of raw materials (including packing materials), in process products or work in process stocks, the finished product and the process steps. Quality plan specifies laid down specifications with allowances, how to sample, how to test (physical, chemical, microbiological, sensory parameters), frequency of monitoring, how to take care of deviations, most of the international standards like ISO 22000, FSSC 22000, and BRC suggest/ demand a quality plan for successful implementation of the Food Safety Management System. Work instructions for conducting tests shall be drawn accordingly.
It is necessary that our legal regulatory body FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) stresses on this aspect of quality plan before allowing the Food Business Operator (FBO) to start manufacturing the product.
Basic Instruments in QC Lab
Once the specifications are laid down based on the legal and customer requirements, the testing methods are drawn and suitable laboratory instruments are identified. One must select proper instruments – suitable for its operating conditions. There are many small scale food industries manufacturing various food products without the basic quality control instruments and testing procedures. In my experience, I have seen many fruit and vegetable product industries, manufacturing jams, syrups, pickles and so on, do not have specifications, no basic laboratory instruments like proper thermometer, hand refractometer, pH meter or acidity testing facilities.
This is very dangerous as the Critical Control Points (CCPs) of the processes are not monitored. Whether they adopt HACCP – Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points – or not, the process has CCPs which need to be monitored for assuring safe product to the consumers. Any small scale food industry before starting the manufacturing, must know its Critical Control Points and must acquire the necessary quality control laboratory instruments and methods to monitor the CCPs.
As we all know, safe food is free from physical, chemical and biological hazards. The specification laid down by the FBO shall cover the risks from these hazards.  Accordingly the testing methods shall be drawn and necessary measuring instruments shall be available for testing. For example, proper sieves shall be available in the quality control laboratory of a flour mill to check the presence of physical hazards in the product before passing for dispatch. Of course, a good dial thermometer in the quality control laboratory will check the pasteurisation temperature in a small dairy – eliminating the probability of pathogenic microorganism in the milk product.
Many food industries are having HPLC (not required) but not proper thermometers or pH meters. Small FBOs, making beverages add synthetic colours – FSSAI permits 100ppm – means 100mg in one kg product – their total production quantity may be 50 kg – most of the FBOs do not have that sensitive weighing scales to weigh out milligram of colours, excess colour is harmful to the consumers’ health! Small scale FBOs may not be able to carry out microbiological examinations to ascertain biological hazards but shall get them done periodically through public health laboratory or private laboratory. However, efforts shall be made to include microbiological examination facility at the earliest!
As food fraud is becoming more and more among the suppliers – both raw material and finished product, it is necessary to have the facilities in the laboratory to check for adulteration in the incoming materials. Many hotels even today, when there is so much of adulteration in milk, do not have the facility to do basic adulteration tests in the purchased milk – imagine the health risks for the consumers from this!
Calibration of Instruments
It is also imperative to calibrate these instruments periodically by a NABL (National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) accredited laboratory. This is very important as the not calibrated or wrong calibration of the instruments would increase the probability of releasing a unsafe food product from the FBO. Day to day in-house calibration of the instruments is equally necessary to monitor the accuracy of the test results. Side by side, this is validated by testing the products by external laboratories and comparing with the in-house test results.
Operation of QC Laboratory
Good Laboratory Practice is one of the pre-requisite programmes in the Food Safety Management System. Once the quality control laboratory is in operation, it is very important to link the quality control with quality assurance – so that the resultant effect completely satisfies the consumer, assuring him/her the safe food product.
Not only skilled but also trained and systematic manpower in the quality control laboratory is one major requirement for this. Consistency in results is very important. Our regulatory agency FSSAI needs to take seriously the training of small scale FBO personnel in basic quality control methods apart from food safety awareness. Awareness in the international specifications and requirements is also necessary in case the FBO is engaged in exports. There shall not be any compromise on quality aspects in releasing the product. I have seen many a times, the FBO quality control laboratory releases the product, the importer rejects the consignment due to poor quality – a third external laboratory testing conforms the importer’s testing resulting in a huge loss to the FBO. Strict quality control laboratory ensures good quality assurance to the consumer. Day to day cut-out reports are necessary and should be monitored.
Sensory Evaluation Laboratory
Food product is always enjoyed by the consumer by his basic sensory attributes – so the food product shall be ready to satisfy his sensory needs. Sensory evaluation of the final product is necessary before releasing to the market. Every FBO, even if it’s a small scale, shall have a Sensory Evaluation Testing done in his quality control laboratory. Central institutes like Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysore, conducts training in sensory evaluation testing methods.

QC Lab and Handling of Customer Complaints

A good quality control laboratory will be able to handle properly a customer complaint and would help in preventing the recurrence of any defects in future. Any customer complaint can be analysed both in the document and physical testing, defects found out and rectified and prevented from further recurrence. E.g., Simple testing of pH, per cent acidity, and temperature of cooking during the manufacturing of jam data would enable to analyse and verify the customer complaint. This will increase the confidence in the FBO in giving the right product to the customer and also a good business in future.
It is needless to say that a good quality control laboratory is no less than the heart of the FBO manufacturing unit!

(The author is food safety and food processing consultant, Panjim, Goa. He can be contacted at rkayrjay@gmail.com)

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