Impact of COVID-19 and Brexit on public analysts and food safety testing discussed

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Public analyst laboratories are facing a number of challenges but there are also opportunities, according to the president of the Association of Public Analysts (APA) in the United Kingdom.

APA members are appointed public analysts who specialize in analysis to support enforcement by trading standards, environmental health in local authorities and regulators.

Jane White said the number of public analysts and public analyst labs in the United Kingdom has been declining in recent years.

“At the moment we have 12 labs in England, seven in Scotland and four public analysts in Wales. Ten years ago there were 37 public analysts and when I first started in Glasgow there were over eight public analysts in the one lab. There is a continuing downward trend, hopefully we are starting to get to the bottom of that, it becomes more difficult to operate if there are less of us available,” she told attendees at the UK’s Government Chemist Conference this past week.

Maintain expertise
There are also nine Official Control Laboratories in the UK, four each in England and Scotland and one in Wales. In 2010, there were 20 such labs.

“We have competition within labs, this causes issues as there is only a small pot of money available and the budgets within local authorities are always shrinking. There is no requirement for any local authority to take samples, although they have to do a sampling plan, that doesn’t mean they’ll generate any samples,” said White.

“We have no control over the samples that come into us but we are expected to maintain a wide scope of accreditation and carry the costs of this. Every year we have our UKAS accreditation visit and if your scope of accreditation is large the cost becomes more expensive. The other constraint is we can’t have any conflict of interest so we can’t take on work from clients in our area of enforcement so this limits what we can take in from other sources.

“Historically, we have invested heavily into different types of method development for them not to be used. Glasgow did quite a lot of work on GMOs but nobody was interested in submitting samples. We would have gone through method validation costs, the ongoing costs to keep the accreditation in-house, cost of the equipment and maintenance of it and the maintenance of skills. Every year if we don’t use a method we still have to participate in proficiency testing rounds to ensure the analysts are able to use the method properly. Infrequently used methods are becoming more of an issue for us as the different sample types are reducing, as have the requests for analysis, particularly over the past year.”

EU exit and pandemic issues
White said some labs had to furlough staff during the pandemic, mainly because of a reduction in samples from local authorities as people were involved in other COVID compliance issues.

“They were maybe going out visiting premises but they weren’t looking at it from a food safety aspect and taking samples. We were still having to ensure staff training was up to date although there were no samples coming in to cover that. This increased our overheads and we had issues with trying to get consumables,” she said.

On top of this was trying to cope with Brexit, said White.

“There seems to be some uncertainty still around some of the import and export controls. We have had requests for support on export controls and export health certificates. There are new border controls so as they come onboard we are looking to see how they are expecting the labs to work. This could cause issues for us as we are looking at short turnaround times of potentially 48 hours on analysis which is not how all the labs operate. Small batch sizes have associated increased costs,” she said.

“What’s not been helpful is the lack of clarity. It’s hard to plan for the future when you don’t know what it is you are supposed to provide. We know there will be potentially additional requirements for samples coming in but it’s hard to invest in the areas and method development without knowing where it is you want to put that money. There has also been issues with sourcing reference materials and importation of hazardous materials into the lab. Samples taken in Northern Ireland have to be analyzed within an EU lab, even if it’s a takeaway meal, and the certification would have to be under UK law. This has been seen to be increasing the costs associated with the analysis and it will be interesting to see how that goes forward in the future.”

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