Microbiologically Speaking, DTS is Keeping it Safe

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-By Tracey Hilderley

DTS Food Laboratories was set up in 1954 as Dairy Technical Services Limited by a group of 20 Victorian Dairy Cooperatives to act as a central laboratory to provide microbiological and chemical test results on product being exported to Europe. The original laboratory was located in Flinders Lane in the City of Melbourne and since then has moved three times as it grew. The company now boasts two sites, with Head Office in Kensington and a second laboratory located 600 metres away in North Melbourne. “DTS is the only Food Testing Laboratory in Australia owned by the Food Industry with Murray Goulburn Cooperative, Fonterra Australia and Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory being major shareholders,” says Mr Graeme Richardson, CEO, “and the first and major requirement of the Board is that the test results provided to the Food Industry are of the highest quality.”

Food Production is highly regulated and very competitive, especially recently with the buying strategies being imposed by Coles and Woolworths. This of course produces constant pressure for reduction in both the cost of testing and the time taken to deliver the test results. The methods used are controlled by the Food Sciences Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Committee. In parallel, the way in which laboratories should be run is laid out in ISO Standard 17025 which requires that all aspects of a laboratory’s functionality are defined in writing, from the test methods used, to the training of staff that carry out the tests, to the processes for releasing those results to the client. NATA, the National Association of Testing Authorities, provides accreditation services against ISO 17025 and being accredited is regarded by the Food Industry as the badge of laboratory competence. “DTS is proud that it has been continuously accredited since 1961,” says Graeme.

Every Food Manufacturer has to ensure that the products being made are both fit for human consumption and meet the composition detailed on the Nutritional Panel of the packaging. All food factories have cleaning and sanitising regimes to prevent bacterial contamination of the food being processed. The presence or absence of pathogenic bacteria (i.e. bacteria that can kill) such as Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes and the amount of food spoilage bacteria such as yeasts and moulds and other microbes are checked for every batch of product made. The presence of the E coli species is also investigated. This species is well known to the general public, as when water quality is checked at public beaches to establish if conditions are fit for swimming, the main indicator of such contamination is E coli, which in this case can lead to stomach upsets. DTS has a very large Microbiology Laboratory that carries out this work, supported by a dedicated group of senior microbiologists whose task it is to ensure that DTS is able to respond rapidly to emerging threats to public safety.

“Operating in such a controlled environment one might think that nothing would change,” says Graeme. “Quite to the contrary, there have been at least three such developments over the past six years, all involving members of the E coli family of bacteria.” The first was an E coli named sakazakii after Professor Sakazakii who identified it as the bacteria that killed some infants in Japan. As a result all milk based infant formula products are tested to ensure E sakazakii is absent. The second E coli found to be fatal was identified as the cause of death for some people in America eating somewhat raw hamburger meat. It is called E 0157:H4 – just a number, Graeme says, to distinguish it in a very large family of bacteria. It produces a toxin in the body which can kill. All meat exported to the USA for hamburger patties must be checked to ensure its absence.

Just in the last 12 months an additional six E coli (called STECs) have found to be toxin producers as well. Found initially in meat, they were also the cause of a number of deaths in Europe for people who consumed bean sprouts sourced from Egypt. DTS has responded to the needs of the Meat Industry in Australia and offers testing services for these additional pathogens. All meat exported to America much be shown to be clear of these species as well.

The chemistry of food is less dramatic but still important, as when the body digests and uses food the processes being used are chemical. Thus the information displayed on the nutritional panel is important and generally every product will periodically be tested for the presence of vitamins, minerals and pesticides, and to ensure that no problems will occur due to the presence of poisonous metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic etc. Providing a full line of chemistry testing for the food industry is a major challenge. DTS currently has nearly 1000 separate test methods available for use by its customers. “This might seem a crazy number of tests as there are not 1000 separate items that we are trying to analyse for,” says Graeme. “Rather it comes about through the wide range of food types that mankind consumes and as the chemistry of these different foods varies enormously, so too does DTS need to have a variety of different test methods that cope with the different foods.” DTS has a separate laboratory focussed specifically on providing its full range of chemistry testing services.

“Several other specific testing needs have emerged that the Food Industry has needed and DTS has equipped itself to meet these needs,” explains Graeme. “The introduction of GMO (genetically modified organisms) Canola and Soy seed produced an enormous public debate and a new range of testing methods to identify the presence or absence of the gene that conveys protection against a particular insecticide were developed. The demand for this testing has levelled off as the public interest in the debate for and against GMO has fallen away. The testing is now used mostly to assure grain growers that their seed stock either does or doesn’t contain GMO.”

The second relatively new area of testing that has been expanding rapidly and will continue to grow relates to Allergens. For whatever reason, younger generations of Australians (and others around the world) are developing allergenic reactions to a wide range of food products at much greater rates than previously. The list of allergens is growing steadily with the most common being Gluten (affects people who are celiacs) and peanuts with soy, dairy, egg and other nuts such as almonds to follow. The effects can be life threatening where eating produces anaphylaxis which, without treatment, can lead to death by choking.

“Food manufacturers need to understand in detail what is in their products so that the presence of an allergen can be advised on the label of the product (e.g., ‘this product contains peanuts’) and sometimes the allergen may be part of an ingredient being added to the product that wouldn’t be expected to contain any allergenic material,” explains Graeme. There were three food product recalls last year that had this problem, with two of them being imported raw materials that unexpectedly contained Gluten (typically part of starch containing materials such as wheat). The cost of a recall far exceeds the test costs associated with ensuring that the product or its ingredients are allergen free.

While a number of laboratories offer allergen testing, DTS is one of only two laboratories in Australia accredited by NATA to carry out such testing, a clear indication of its commitment to providing the best quality of testing to its customers.

DTS has long been the major supplier of testing services to the Dairy Industry, and six years ago it commenced what the Industry calls farmer payment testing. In the modern world the farmer is no longer paid for the volume of milk his herd produces but rather for the fats and proteins in the milk – the rest is water. So when the tanker calls at the dairy farm to pick up the milk, the driver collects a small sample of the milk and these samples are delivered to DTS the next morning for testing. DTS measures the weight of fat and protein present per litre and supplies this to the dairy factory buying the milk; they calculate the value of that milk and pay accordingly. DTS also checks several other parameters to confirm the quality of the milk. In a typical busy day DTS can receive in excess of 6,000 such samples from all over Australia.

“The rapid expansion that has happened over the past six years has seen staff numbers increase by a factor of four and sales by a factor of six. However, none of this would have been achievable without a very strong focus on several key aspects of the business,” said the CEO. “The prime focus must always be on the needs of our customers and how to meet those needs. Apart from the range of tests, the customer will always want lower costs, faster times to results and technical support.”

Delivering these outcomes requires focus on a number of key processes. Staff must be offered ongoing professional and management training to develop into the leaders of the future. This program must be supported by the recruitment of additional skilled, experienced staff that can help manage the demands of growth and changing technology.

Running a laboratory with 250 staff, 1000 different chemistry tests and 400 microbiology tests would be impossible in today’s world without a major spend on computing systems, and in particular, a world class LIMS (laboratory information management system) and a coterie of staff to exploit the power of the system. DTS has built such a team and continues to invest in this area.

Investing in both laboratory space and equipment to support growth is an ongoing need and the Board of DTS has been very supportive. “However, a lot of this time, money and effort can be wasted if there is not an overarching and never-ending drive for productivity improvements,” says Graeme. All investment proposals are tested for their impact on productivity as part of the approval process. DTS is proud of what its staff has achieved in making this Laboratory and its services world class. It is now the largest food testing laboratory in Australia.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

October 21, 2018, 11:47 AM AEDT