This article originally appeared in the news section of Borrow-Agee Laboratories' website. This testing service blog has been republished here for our readers.
One of the most important things to consider in order to get accurate test results in food safety testing is your sampling process. Many companies still rely on manually sampling animal feed, byproduct, or animals themselves rather than automated sampling. But this encourages a number of problems that may not allow for the most effective quality testing.
Automated sampling, on the other hand, uses machinery to take representative, composite examples in small, consistent sample sizes to get the best overall picture of quality across the process.
A piece of auto-sampling equipment is designed to match a particular application and installation and is installed at specific time intervals or by volume, where it will take small cuts out of the line of material as it moves by.
“With the design of the equipment, we try to understand where in the line would be the best spot to take the sample,” said Rich Gaffney, Vice President of Commercial Operations at Sentry Equipment, which produces automated sampling devices. “It’s not always in one spot. Sometimes we need to be able to do a strip sample or a cross-sectional cut, and each of those have statistical values.”
When companies auto-sample, they’re building a composite over time to capture a true representation of everything that happened within that time period. With hand sampling, there isn’t typically easy access to retrieve a sample from a particular point in the process, and there is ample room for error and inadequacy.
In fact, automated sampling has several advantages for companies in the food industry as they send samples to testing labs for quality and safety analysis. Here are four major benefits that stem from auto-sampling.
In a food processing plant, production can continue as usual while automated sampling is done in-line with no downtime. The sampler controller and device can be incorporated within existing systems and equipment, so sampling can begin without operator engagement.
“That’s the real key to auto-sampling: tying it into your control system and having it work with your system in harmony to work with those ebbs and flows in the process and make sure it’s grabbing samples throughout the process,” Gaffney said.
While manual sampling is validated through USDA governing bodies with quality programs written around the sanitation level of the process, it’s important to note that many auto-sampling devices, including Sentry’s, meet the same specifications.
“As long as good practice is used on the installation, the equipment will fold right into any existing program with minimal impact to validation,” Gaffney said. “The return for them is trust and confidence that they’re capturing the entire process, not just snapshots.”
Ever hear of the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out”? That goes for sampling, too. The analysis that is done at the laboratory on behalf of the customer relies on the quality of the sample that is submitted. Your sampling method should be designed for a specific process stream, conditions, material characteristics, safety hazards or requirements necessary for your operations.
“The auto-sampler allows you to take a better quality of sample, meaning a better spot in the process to get a more homogenous sample, and also allows you to build that composite over time,” Gaffney said. “When you take a hand sample, you take a snapshot into the process at a given time. And processes are not linear — they change throughout the production cycle, and I am capturing none of that if I just grab at one spot at one specific time.”
Automated sampling can help to identify the contamination source at the point it’s happening within the process. Because the sampler is exposed to as much product as possible through various installation points and can take cross-sectional cuts, contamination can be identified at a single spot on the line. With hand sampling, by nature there will be human error introduced into the process and there won’t be an easily-identifiable contamination origin.
Hand sampling also introduces several inconsistencies in the samples that are extracted. Aside from the varying points at which a sample is taken, each individual person during each shift may take samples in different ways, leading to inaccurate representations of the product.
“The human factor of hand sampling is the biggest potential inconsistency or the biggest risk of not getting an accurate sample,” Gaffney said. “There are too many factors and lack of control that would allow for the sample to be consistent time over time. A mechanical device will go to the same spot in the line and gives you consistency and trust in the data.”
The increase in safety that automated sampling provides is twofold: no direct human interaction means it’s safer for an operator, and safer for the consumer as it’s less likely that an operator will introduce contamination.
“On the human side, some of these products are hot or flowing at a high rate, which means a lot of product going through the line,” Gaffney said. “If I’m an operator and I have to open up the process to stick my hand in the live flow of material, I could be injured by whatever’s happening. Whereas the auto-sampler relieves the operator from having to reach inside.”
With the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforcing federal government mandates regarding workplace safety, an automated sampling system helps to keep operators safe and within safety requirements.
The food products themselves are protected through auto-sampling by using sanitary, easy-to-clean devices and FDA-approved seals, rather than human hands that run the risk of improper sanitation or glove use. The combination of reduced exposure and more accurate testing helps to avoid product recalls.
4. Improved Yield
The food and beverage industry needs to monitor nutrients, moisture, pathogens and contaminants to stay safe and profitable. Representative sampling enables the detection of irregularities and other issues that can lead to product waste. Furthermore, the confidence that comes from accurately obtaining samples enables companies to increase production.
“It’s important from a risk standpoint to understand the benefit of an auto-sampler past just the purchase, installation and maintenance of the equipment,” Gaffney said. “There are benefits in the confidence in the product you’re producing as well as keeping your staff out of harm’s way, increase production over time and potentially improve your record as well.”
Learn more about how you can protect operators, ensure the integrity of your samples, and ensure compliance with automatic samplers here.