Laboratory services for food safety in a state of transition


<p>According to a report by the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira, laboratory services for food safety are mainly well organised. As a result of the amendments made in the Finnish Local Government Act in 2015, food laboratories are now mainly private enterprises. This privatisation and the competitive tendering of laboratory services in municipalities that comes along with it may lead to a situation, where the range of laboratory services related to food safety will be too much based on demand and we will lose the competence for the performance of less common analyses in Finland.&nbsp;</p>

Laboratory examinations are the basis of food safety, because they are part of food risk management and control. Evira has compiled a report on the availability, sufficiency and use of laboratory services in food safety control carried out by the authorities or the food industry itself.

The effects of privatising municipalities' laboratory services cannot be assessed until a few years later when we have learned which laboratories are viable and what selection of analyses they provide.

Emergency readiness must be ensured

Emergencies under otherwise normal conditions are typically epidemics resulting from food or water contamination, the causes of which are often unknown. Any laboratory a municipal health authority turns to in an epidemic must be able to begin laboratory tests with a sufficiently wide range of basic analyses.

"Municipal health authorities must have in place a contingency plan for emergencies, based on the Health Protection Act and Food Act. If necessary, Evira will guide local laboratories in conducting studies," says Senior Inspector Taija Rissanen of Evira's Planning and Direction Unit.

Once more and more laboratories operate privately and become more dependent on the markets, it may be difficult to obtain more demanding analyses during emergencies. Sending samples outside the country may also become impossible.

"In terms of crises, it would be vitally important to retain the equipment capacity, resources and expertise of certain state-run laboratories at a high level in order to be able to respond to any analysis needs without delay," she continues.

Changes in laboratory services

Laboratories' food studies are based on food legislation requirements and food industry needs. According to the report, laboratory services needed by the authorities and the food industry are as a rule easily available.

However, most laboratories operate on a business basis, and therefore the range of food analyses of individual laboratories are largely determined by demand. When services are subjected to tendering, price will be a key factor when municipalities select a service provider. As a result, laboratory services may increasingly be provided by large laboratories which, owing to extensive networks, can handle more samples and therefore offer more competitive prices.

"Good customer service also requires efficient subcontracting networks and good logistics services that handle the samples. This is something many laboratories have already invested in a lot," says Ms Rissanen.

Challenges also to municipal food control

As the situation changes, it is becoming increasingly important for municipalities to determine the criteria for the laboratory services they need. The contract between the laboratory and the municipality becomes more important.

If laboratory services are concentrated to fewer service providers or moved further away, customers may also have to change their practices, such as learning to interpret the results more independently. This means that the taking, packing and dispatching of samples must be planned better. 

Read more about Evira's laboratory report (in Finnish).

Additional information:
Senior Inspector Taija Rissanen, Planning and Direction Unit, tel. +358 50 574 6308 


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