FQN digests 2016 and injects topics of 2017

Food labs looking to make better use of resources - Agilent

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To understand the food safety and quality landscape we sent a Q+A to several companies to discuss highlights of 2016 and to predict what this year could bring.

Here is the fourth with John Lee from Agilent. If you missed the third with Thermo Fisher Scientific, second with Bob Galvin, VP Applied Markets at Bruker Daltonics or first with Ashley Sage, senior manager - applied markets development EMEAI at SCIEX, follow the links.

FQN: What was the highlight of 2016 for your company and why?

Lee: We find that food labs are continually looking for ways to increase the efficiency with which they use hardware, chemicals, space or labour force.

In 2016 we launched a number of products with this in mind. The highlight for me was the Intuvo 9000 GC System because it had a revolutionary design. It offers our customers a way to save space, run faster methods and get even better performance from their methods, especially in terms of reproducibility. It also takes a fresh look at how to make GC an easier technology to set up, use and maintain. This modular technology means no more ferrules and seals for users to worry about.

Our GC/MS Tandem Quadrupole systems are now provided with something we call Dynamic MRM which is a technology that allows labs to evolve their pesticide analysis for ever increasing scope. It’s something which we developed for LC/MS Tandem Quadrupole a few years ago and has been very well adopted in the industry. There are over 2,000 potential chemicals that can be used as pesticides in food production and it can be surprising to discover that many government surveillance programs have historically tested for only a fraction of these (based on intelligence). That’s beginning to change as supply chains get more complex and global so Tandem Mass Spec with Dynamic MRM technology is increasingly popular.

As labs increase their scope they are beginning to look for contaminants that are actually quite rare. Some of those labs are asking whether they can search for these things without having to inject a standard every time. That can get quite expensive and time consuming when the overall standard mix might need to include hundreds of compounds. For unknown compounds another approach can be to search against a reliable spectral library and for that the best approach is to use QTOF technology.

Agilent has launched a number of spectral libraries in the last year developed for use with QTOF and containing many hundreds of compounds. These libraries contain fragment ion information in the form of accurate mass spectra. Hence the accurate mass capability of QTOF’s can be leveraged to drive highly selective and therefore sensitive screening of pesticides and other contaminants like vet drugs and mycotoxins.  

FQN: What are focus areas for 2017?

Lee: Agilent continues to focus on how to help food labs make better use of the resources they have. There is a responsibility for companies like Agilent to look at how technological innovation can help address these needs. Clearly increased efficiency ultimately means more testing can be carried out.

One focus as we work to this goal is to ensure our new technologies fit well into generating the right quality of results for our customers. Quality of results can be about a number of things. Here are two examples:

Fit for purpose: Having the right selectivity and sensitivity for analysis. In this context we need...to have a clear idea about a workflow that each instrument can be part of. From sample prep to results, Agilent is striving to provide complete workflows for the key applications that food labs need to perform. With new emerging concerns over many contaminants in 2016, the scope of that challenge is greater than ever before.

New types of information needed: Food analysis is often about reporting on the presence and concentration of a compound or element, either because it is an attribute (e.g. a vitamin) or it is cause for concern (e.g. a mycotoxin or a heavy metal). However there is now an increasing interest for food characterization where a more holistic view is required. Food labs doing this work want a very different style of reporting which gives an indication on whether the food sample in question is authentic or whether a change in a manufacturing process has caused a significant change in a product.

  • Controlling authenticity is certainly something for which governments are requiring manufacturers to be more vigilant. The requirements of the FSMA in the US are a good example. However many food companies are putting in place many such controls simply because it makes good business sense as they strive to protect their brand in the face of an ever more global and complex supply chain of the ingredients that they use. In all cases such control requires many strategies but at some point testing of supply chain is required and usually the required test is one that has unique applicability for a given manufacturer
  • Changes in a manufacturing process also require characterization either because a manufacturer is developing a new improved food product or because some other external influence might cause an undesirable change. Such changes may be in flavor or fragrance or they may be imperceptible but of concern. An example of the latter case is when a change from the packaging used to contain a food product occurs. Such changes can produce an infinite number of possibilities for new contaminants that might leach into a food product.  

In both cases food manufacturers are looking for a new style of report that can enable quick insights into the character of a food or food packaging sample.

FQN: Do you see past issues such as agar shortages, helium supply shortage/cost or political issues in Venezuela affecting 2017 or are there other things to keep an eye on?

Lee: The price of helium has been rising steadily over the last two decades and there have been shortages in the past due to political reasons. Labs performing GC/MS analysis need an effective carrier gas and helium represents a safe option delivering efficient chromatographic resolution from the GC and excellent sensitivity in the mass spec.

Hydrogen can deliver even better chromatographic resolution from the GC so given the cost issue and the possibility of further stress over helium’s availability and inflating price, some labs are now looking more seriously at hydrogen.

In the past the safety and sensitivity downsides to hydrogen suppressed this effort but the latest GC/MS systems from Agilent are addressing these issues. In particular a GC/MS Tandem Quadrupole launched two years ago is being used by our food customers to investigate hydrogen use for applications like pesticide analysis and dioxin’s analysis.

The sensitivity of the 7010 GC/MS system means that hydrogen can be viewed as equivalent to running helium of older generation instruments. Since those older generation instruments were already doing a good job with helium it means hydrogen with 7010 can do a good job too.

The advantage that comes out from this new MS technology is the chance to have faster/higher throughput analysis (hydrogen can enable faster chromatography) and the chance to save money and potential future supply headaches with regard to helium supply.

FQN: Is FSMA (or other regulation) driving different demands from customers?

Lee: Much of the onus has been on manufacturers and producers, mostly in the realm of paperwork and record keeping. There is some focus on testing especially with regard to microbiological testing. Chemical testing is something which will probably also see more focus in certain areas. Areas where FSMA may drive more focus on better testing is in the field of dietary supplement analysis and cannabis analysis which are both growth areas for the food sector. Indeed these are areas which can overlap with the pharmaceutical industry where regulation is already strong.

FQN: Are there any areas where you think 2017 will be the ‘breakthrough’ year?

Lee: I think there will be a breakthrough in the sophistication with which cannabis testing is performed. There are a wide range of capabilities in the testing labs supporting the fast growing cannabis industry in US. That growth is driven by the new state regulations since many states are now legalizing even recreational use of cannabis products.

There‘s a big need for pesticide analysis given the large number of small producers all of whom will have different approaches to pest control in the growing of the cannabis plants. And another big safety test needed is around residual solvent assessment given that most products come from a solvent extraction from the cannabis flower. Those solvents then need be evaporated away but the completion of that important step is critical to safe consumption of the resulting extract.

Cannabis is a complex matrix which can generate many interferences for such analyses. Testing labs are still finding out what strategies can generate the best results in the most efficient work flows. Agilent are collaborating with many of those labs and we expect there to be big steps made over the next year or two.

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