Best for tests

Demonstrating the integrity of food products is a key challenge in the current market with growing consumer demands for assurance – and National Milk Laboratories are working with dairy processors across the UK to meet the challenge in the dairy sector

As food processors look to build their brands, product integrity has never been more important. Contamination issues can cause major damage to a brand, especially those pitching at the high-value market.

The provider of payment testing services to dairy processors in the UK, National Milk Laboratories (NML) delivers a range of testing services from confirming the constituents in farm milk to checking for bacteria and screening for contaminants such as antibiotics and water. Clients include small processors sourcing milk from local farms up to large-scale businesses such as Arla, Dairy Crest and Müller.

Advances in testing technology
Testing technologies today provide wider analysis and greater sensitivity than ever before.

“As a service provider we are constantly offered new testing instruments that provide quicker and more sensitive tests,” explains NML Director Ben Bartlett. “We are looking for those that have the appropriate level of validation, and that offer speed and cost efficiency. At the same time the sensitivity of the test needs to be in line with domestic and international market requirements. Testing methods have developed such that it is now possible to detect analytes not just in parts per million but also parts per billion or trillion and there is even the prospect of testing to parts per quadrillion. It’s the equivalent of a drop of a contaminant in a bath, a swimming pool, or a lake. The challenge for NML is to find the test that is suitable for the purpose. This will be affected by the source of the sample and the rationale for the testing.”

In the past the industry was able to base its surveillance on the European Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) – which is a limit that is based on the level of contamination that could be injurious to human health. However, these days test methods are capable of sensitivity levels that go well below the MRL – effectively raising the bar on surveillance standards. Sometimes such levels of sensitivity can be useful, but equally in other scenarios such levels of sensitivity are not needed (eg for a low risk contaminant).

Meeting the demands of the domestic consumer for appropriate surveillance is not the only challenge, as export markets are also raising the bar on surveillance requirements with importing countries checking imported goods using increasingly sensitive test methods.

Evidence Investigator Instrument
New solutions for UK processors include NML’s investment in an Evidence Investigator instrument, sourced from Randox, for its laboratories in Four Ashes, near Stafford, and in Hillington, Glasgow.

The previous range of broad spectrum antibiotic tests would result in a pass or fail, but wouldn’t identify the particular active antibiotic ingredient that causes the fail. The Evidence Investigator Instrument uses multiplex arrays to help identify the precise analyte(s) causing failures in antimicrobial testing. The instrument can simultaneously detect up to 129 antibiotics/ non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and anti-parasitic drug residues from a 25?l sample of raw bovine milk. With this information the source of the contamination can be found and steps taken to prevent a re-occurrence.

“Our mantra as an industry should be that drugs are used as little as possible but as much as necessary and treatment choice should be evidence based,” says Ben Bartlett. “If a cow is effectively diagnosed and needs to be treated, then the case for the use of antibiotics is clear. But the pressure on antibiotic use will continue to rise due to antibiotic resistance and concern about medicines penetrating the food supply chain. The challenge is ensuring we have the management systems to reduce antibiotic use without any negative consequences for animal welfare. It’s all about balance and getting relevant information collated more effectively into systems that allow the vet and farmer to make informed decisions. NML is working intensively in this area on enabling the transfer of data from the vet practice and the farm to ensure that the principle of ‘as little as possible, but as much as necessary’ can be applied across all dairy farms.”

Surveillance and record keeping
With many imported products used in both farming and food production, horizon scanning is all important, along with risk-based surveillance testing to check that contaminants are not getting into the food chain. “Surveillance should be set according to risk and regularly reviewed. When contaminants are found in the milk supply, swift action is key – to determine the source of the contamination and to prevent any further occurrence. In these situations, having accurate and current information is vital, which is where the supply of data on treatments dispensed and treatments used is so important.

Fortunately the track record of the GB dairy industry is good, but from time to time incidences do occur. These are nearly always by accident, when an agreed process is not followed properly within the supply chain. Minimising the occurrence of these accidents requires effective training of those responsible for managing the use of veterinary treatments. The industry has taken a key step here in the development of the MilkSure programme – a training programme that is already in widespread use across the sector.

Looking ahead
“The future will centre on data,” says Ben Bartlett. “As the industry looks to move towards risk-based surveillance practices, the more information that it has the better. The challenge, which we can meet perfectly well, is gathering the data in a fashion that allows risk-based surveillance for each farm or group of farms.”

The business is also developing its technical advisory capabilities, with two full-time vets on the team able to advise on the likely source of contamination on farm and potential strategies to minimise the risk of issues arising.

There are also questions around whether Brexit will affect European workers and food assurance standards. “The British dairy industry will need to be able to demonstrate that its assurance systems are at least as good as – if not better than – its European neighbours,” says Ben Bartlett. “NML is committed to playing its part in providing solutions for the industry such that this level of assurance can be achieved, giving the sector a competitive advantage as it looks for new opportunities in the wider global marketplace.”

Tel: 01902 749920