Food testing industry on a growth path


“All I ask of food is that it doesn’t harm me,” said well-known English co- median Michael Palin in a comedy show Flying Circus. This shows that the food safety has univer- sal appeal. It is an issue that involves and spans many different sections – manufacturing, retail, restaurants, technology, government, law, regulatory and of course food testing laboratories.

Safety, standards and the information of the food that is being consumed is becoming very important and sensitive issue. This is particularly true when the people are turning more to the foods of different varieties like instant, ready-to-eat, processed, fortified & functional food, dietary supplements and nutraceuticals etc., either by compulsion or by choice, and at the same time they are increasingly becoming health conscious. The assumption that the food they consume is generally safe and of certain standards is not enough for the people now, but they need concrete proof for the same. They want to know the ingredients and their ratio, the nutritional value and lots of variety of information of the food they take.

The people’s changing attitude and requirements towards food safety as well as their strong and growing wish to know more about the food they eat, made the government to establish new standards on safety on the basis of international norms and set up a regulatory authority to monitor the food safety. With an ever-increas- ing need and awareness about food safety and growth in the domestic food market and stringent norms that are being adopted by regulatory bodies, exporters & importers, quality control of the raw material as well as food products has become the norm. The government is implementing the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, which makes testing and compliance mandatory. As a result, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has devised standards and allowed certain laboratories to test samples on those norms. That is where food testing labs come into the picture and play an important role.

The work, business and importance of food testing labs in India is going to keep on growing as the food industry will grow. India now ranks second world-wide in terms of food production. Its food processing industry is one of the largest among all industries and ranks fifth in terms of production, consumption, export and expected growth.

The sector is on an assured track of growth and profitability and has been accorded as one of the top 10 priority areas on the new government’s agenda.

These factors underline the need for revamping the existing as well as setting up of new state-of-the-art laboratories which can cater to the increasing demand from the international and domestic markets. The food testing market is growing globally. According to the Global Industry Analysis (GIA), the global market is currently growing at a CAGR of 7.01% and is slated to reach $11.4 billion by 2015. The thriving export market has led to many international players setting up their labs and expanding their presence in the country. India is no exception. Increasing exports as well as growing awareness about safety and quality has resulted in a number of big and small food testing and cer- tification agencies mushrooming in India. “Looking at the growth in overall food and food processing industry in the last 5 years, the requirement of more and more food testing laboratories in India is inevitable,” said Sunil Punjabi, Managing Director, Sigma Aldrich India.

“It is encouraging to see that the sample loads of our food testing lab- oratories are growing steadily and expected to grow even rapidly in the coming years. Overall the market is growing at more than 20%,” said Amol Deshpande, General Manager, Corporate Marketing – India, Thermo Fisher Scientific.

“Considering the pace at which the processed food and beverage industry in the country is growing, there is an ever expanding need for testing not just the finished products but also verifying quality along the entire sup- ply chain,” said Tarang Koppal, Head, Marketing – Laboratory Services of TUV India Pvt Ltd.

He elaborated that the farm produce, the quality of the soil and water used, agricultural inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers, environmental hygiene of the pack houses and warehouses, shelf life of stored produce, food ingredients, permitted chemical additives, hygiene conditions of the production plants, process water, processed foods, packaging material, new product developments, final shelf stability… the list is truly endless. All these need to be tested for food safety and standards and this can be achieved only with the assis- tance of competent and capable ana- lytical laboratories.

Even the US senator Mike Johanns had once said, “Food safety involves everybody in the food chain.” Considering the growing needs for testing, not only food but the entire supply chain, one issue that becomes very crucial is if the number of laboratories in India are adequate enough to the growing needs. FSSAI has given approval to about 70 labs that are accredited by National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL), in addition to the equal number of central labs and state government labs in various states. Besides them, there are labs in unorgaised sector.

“The food testing laboratories have grown almost three times in numbers in last couple of years. Even the institutes also are extending testing services to the industry, farmers and exporters. The existing FTLs are sufficient for the current market demand; however the demand is sure to go up with great expectations on speed and quality,” said Jayant Dharma, Market- ing Leader – Environmental health, Perkin Elmer.

While Prabodh Halde, Head – Regulatory, Marico, also feels that there are enough number of labs in India to cater to the industry need, Koppal feels “the number of high quality labs that can deliver consistent, accurate and reliable results are grossly insufficient as compared to the existing food business operators.” He said this would need to change drastically in the coming years. Several-fold labs of various sizes & scales – national level, regional level labs and even the close proximity local labs, each serving their individual purposes along the bandwidth of this vast, growing network would be required.

The growth in the business is also pos
ing some challenges. “As the food industry spreads across the rural and urban landscape of the country, sample collection and sample management is also very key to ensuring quick and accurate results, said Deshpande. But, when it comes to quality in scientific matters, Indian standards are sometimes looked upon with little suspicion by the rest of the world and considered not up to the mark. The hygiene and cleanliness in the lab and in environment, the quality and calibration of the equipment, their maintenance and handling, the abil- ity of the people handling the equipment and conducting the tests, there are several issues that create ques- tions and doubts in the minds of the people. 

Giving an international perspective, Helmut Weidlich, Chairman, Institute Prof. Dr George Kurz Gmbh, Germany, said, “There are labs which have a rather basic equipment, but they do their work fine. There are a few labs with rather modern and sophisticated equipment for food testing.” He pointed out that if international foods are just ordinary food used in other countries, then doing the tests on the basis of the usual parameters like absence of residuals, contaminants and dangerous bacteria can be done by many Indian labs. If future international food will be special purpose foods, nutraceuticals with special health-related molecules, then food testing will to a large extend be testing for the presence and quantity of those health related molecules. The ability to do this kind of testing may be restricted to a few labs.

According to Halde, few Indian labs are definitely of international standards. Today there is not much of a difference in international and Indian system since everything can be adopted here. It is the mindset now and demand form regulatory and industry.” However, he added, what we need is upgradation and capability improvement in analytical sectors.

However, Koppal feels, “most of the laboratories in our country currently do not compare to international norms in terms of infrastructure, technical know-how or even the adoption of best practices. There are only a handful that stand on par or above the international benchmarks.” Several states in our country don’t even have a single laboratory that can meet the minimum qualification of a test house such as ISO 17025 which is issued by NABL in India, he added.

Dr Jitendra Kelkar, Deputy General Manager, Customer Support Centre, Shimadzu Analytical (India), also feels the same. Out of the labs that are having NABL accreditation and authorised by FSSAI for food testing, “very few are having advance instrumentation facilities that may be required with respect to food testing,” said Dr Kelkar. He added that it was very important to upgrade these labs so as to carry out tests complying with international regulations. Specifically European norms are too stringent and very few testing labs can do testing which can fulfill EU specifications. 

Dharma said food testing business in India can be classified into three categories – 1) Government certifying labs like National test house, APEDA, EMPEDA, DFRL, Export inspection agencies, regional food labs, AG- MARK etc., 2) MNCs like Intertek , SGS, Bureau Veritas, Geochem etc. and 3) Small to medium sized laboratories with limited testing facilities.

Punjabi said he felt that there were more than 200 laboratories operational in various parts of the country. “These include some of the Govt Referral labs like Public Health Labs, 
Central Food Labs, Food research & Standardization Labs, Food Safety & Analytical QC Labs and many of the private testing labs, which are NABL accredited and authorized by FSSAI,” he added.

Issue of international standard laboratories particularly become very important in cases of food export. Export of food products has increased exponentially and consequently, food testing and analysis industry is also witnessing remarkable growth. India suffered some major setback on this front recently when its Alphonso was rejected by EU, chili pepper were rejected by Saudi Arabia and prior to that spices export firms were put on red list by US authorities.

Considering this crucial aspect, “Without second opinion, these labs need to be upgraded with advance in- strumental facilities,” said Dr Kelkar. Now most of the instrument manufacturers are coming up with highly sensitive and fast instrumentation technologies, he said adding that there are instruments available in the market which can go up to picogram or femtogram levels of impurity detection. Also, there is lot of research going on for unknown impurities identification which needs advance instrumentation. 

One more problem the labs are facing is, he pointed out, that “of standard methods of analysis which are globally followed.” Though there are some government referral laboratories working on developing and standardising the methods of analysis, very little success is achieved. All the labs should be provided with standard monograph for testing different food entities as per international regulations, Dr Kelkar suggested.

Echoing the sentiments, Halde said, “Now upgradation/high tech equipment/efficient techniques are need of the hour and it is competitiative advantage. Ministry of food processing is giving good support for infrastructure improvement and many labs in India have taken the help.”

Elaborating on some recent technologies available for testing Dharma said PerkinElmer’s solutions for elemental detections in food and beverages, packaging quality and development, reliable analysis of pesticides in fruit juices and many other applications are used in various laboratories. The recently launched Dairy Guard analyser for milk and milk-products is a tool for assurance for safer milk.

Thermo Fisher Scientific has also introduced some significant new technology. “Our SureTect™ plat- form offers an accurate detection of pathogens across a broad range of food samples which uses our proven qPCR platform and newly launched kits,” said Deshpande. As against the conventional methods that require between 4 and 7 days, SureTect™ performs the test rapidly within 1 day. This would greatly benefit small, medium or large scale food processing companies in addition to food analysis labs as production batches can be released much earlier than the con- ventional methods, he added.

Punjabi said Sigma’s new Supel™ Tox Cartridges are silica based. Hence it does not need refrigeration for storage and the clean-up time is just 8-10 minutes. Unlike multiple steps in the “Bind & Elute” principle, these cartridges work on “Interference Removal” basis (single step). He described HPLC and GC are among the most accurate and widely used techniques for quantitative Mycotoxin analysis, but the accuracy of these analysis methods is highly dependent on the removal of unwanted sample matrix components. Traditional sample preparation/ clean-up methods use Immuno-affinity cartridges which require refrigeration for storage as well as requires typically 50-60 minutes for sample clean-up in general. But the new product is “5 times faster clean up mechanism,” he added.

Media Preparation is also seen as a very time consuming process which requires dedicated skilled labour and is a repetitive daily activity at Food Testing Labs. “We have recently introduced the Thermo Scientific Oxoid Dry-Bags™ system, which is a bag, filled with pre-irradiated & dehydrated media. With a simple addition of ultrapure water, 20 liters of media can be prepared in under 30 mins as compared to 3 to 4 hours required with the conventional method”, said Deshpande.

Dharma said, “Government of India is extending support to FTL in the form of empowerment; recognition for certification, partnering them in policy making discussions. Industry expects procedures and licencing should be similar to what government testing labs are permitted.” 

The Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MoFPI) is encouraging quality control in the food sector and plans to set up many labs across India. MoFPI has also launched ‘Scheme for Quality Assurance’ and Codex Standards Research and Development. Entrepreneurs and investors avail this scheme which provides grant-in- aid to set up food testing labs across India, upgrade the quality control mechanism and implement Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), International Organisation for Standards (ISO) 22000 and 14000, good hygiene practices (GHP), good manufacturing practices (GMP) and Total Quality Management (TQM) systems in food processing units.

After the equipment comes the issue of availability of qualified human resources. To address the growing needs of the food testing and analytics industry, resources like trained and qualified manpower will have to be developed for the proposed labs. 

“Third and the most important part is expertise that is required to carry out the testing. Currently there is lack of expertise in these testing labs, specifically with respect to sample pre-treatment and interpretation of data,” said Dr Kelkar. He suggested that it was very important that these laboratories have collaborations on large scale with instrument manufacturers and also within themselves, so as to exchange the knowledge and reduce the method development process. There may be need for setting up training centre by the government which will conduct periodic workshops and training programmes to update the knowledge of chemists, said Dr Kelkar.

MoFPI is also implementing a scheme for HRD in the food processing sector. This scheme focuses on developing technologists, managers, entrepreneurs and manpower for quality management. Assistance is provided for creation of infrastructure facilities in academic institutions for degree/ diploma courses in food technology and for setting up of Food Processing Training Centres (FPTC). National Institute of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM) set up by MoFPI is also mandated to serve as a referral laboratory for testing of food products. It provides forward and backward linkages to stakeholders as well as partnering with other food testing laboratories to ensure standardization of procedures and efficient utilisation of resources. It also assists with entrepreneurs in developing sustainable businesses.

Koppal suggested that considering the growing demand for this field, it should be inducted as a major curriculum in the academia with specialised degrees in ‘food chemistry’ and ‘food microbiology’, promoting this as a premium career option for students following the science stream.

Similarly, he added the government should engage in varied PPPs (Public Private Programmes) by which the knowledge that is available with the industry can easily percolate down to aspiring entrepreneurs wishing to enter this domain. In his five-point suggestions, Koppal has also said that sponsorships for participating in international analytical trainings and in technical conferences and for academic visits should be given. “Grants and funds should also be made available to laboratories to participate in international proficiency programmes to validate their testing capabilities and make their analytical competence even more robust,” he added. 

India needs to consider such suggestions seriously and plan to take the necessary steps as this could be a thriving business in coming years, industry experts feel. But as the business would be growing, Weidlich fears of some international consortia of laboratories trying to dominate the Indian market as they have done in other countries by buying one independent laboratory after the other. The less that Indian laboratories are up to international standards the more they will be prey to such international consortia, he warned and suggested, “for Indian labs the alternative to this fate is co-operation with other international independent laboratories in order to come to international standard but stay independent.”

Globalisation has opened opportunities for testing labs business to grow. Globalisation has opened up the markets and increased international trade in all sectors, including food industry. “Growing trend of exporting ethnic food has put food subjected to scientific analytical methods to comply with international safety standards,” said Navneet Mehta, a senior professional in quality and manufacturing across leading FMCG and engineering establishment.

According to Deshpande, “more and more raw and processed food is being exported to countries with various different regulations. This has increased the responsibility of Food Testing laboratories in the country – to provide accurate results in a timely manner and also comply to regulations of different importing countries. As technology is also evolving rapidly, and food is being analysed for the global market, adopting the latest technology is also vital.

Another opportunity is in the form of creating India a food testing hub. While participating in a seminar some time back, Mehta had suggested that like the BPO business in India in 90s, food testing could be a new BPO. India could test food at low cost and hence now there is an opportunity for food labs to grow. “The business opportunities in the coming years are huge, and therefore we need to set up more laboratories and position India as the food testing hub for Asia”, added Mehta. Echoing same feelings, Halde said, “Food lab could be very good partner in business, not only for routine testing but it can be part of overall food safety strategy. And from industry we should treat the lab services as partner in growth rather than just a testing house.”

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