Due to the well-known risks of working with pathogens in an in-house food laboratory, there
has been a dramatic shift to outsourcing for pathogen samples

There has been much discussion in recent years about the use of rapid microbiological
methods in food safety testing and, most recently, controversial debates about whether they
are still needed. With laboratory outsourcing at a historic high and better shipping methods
delivering samples to labs ever faster, are rapid test methods—especially those employed in-house by food processors—still a necessary technology? Or is the ease of use and faster time
to results still essential for better food safety management?

Growth of Rapid Microbiological Methods

Tests such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), immunoassay, Enzyme-linked
immunosorbent assay (ELISA), automated bioburden testing, and similar instrument-based
rapid microbiological methods have become commonplace in food safety. The growth of
these rapid microbiological methods, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon dating back
perhaps 20–25 years. When first introduced to the market, rapid microbiological methods
were seen as very attractive due to their time savings. Microbiology tests that used to take
5–7 days using traditional growth-based methods could now be completed in 2–3 days, saving
time and money associated with holding times and inventory, thereby increasing the plant’s
production capacity and the efficiency of logistics. These benefits led to their widespread

About 21 years ago, in 2003, analysis using rapid pathogen test methods accounted for less
than one-third of all pathogen samples analysed. In 2013, this proportion had increased to 43
percent. Recently, in 2023, that figure has grown to well over 50 percent. This market share
gain for rapid microbiological methods is even more remarkable considering that it occurred
during a time of overall strong organic growth in pathogen testing volume, with the total
number of tests doubling from 2003 to 2013 and doubling again from 2013 to 2023. No need
to do the math; that amounts to strong adoption of rapid pathogen testing methods.

As rapid microbiological methods were first being adopted by food microbiology labs, those
labs were more likely to be in a laboratory housed within a food plant. In 2013, for example,
more than 90 percent of all (pathogen and non-pathogen) microbiology samples collected
were analysed at the plant where they were collected. Today, that proportion has fallen to
less than 70 percent.

Rapid Growth of Outsourcing

Due to the well-known risks of working with pathogens in an in-house food laboratory, there
has been an even more dramatic shift to outsourcing for pathogen samples. In 2013, less than
17 percent of pathogen samples were sent to a lab outside of the plant. Today, the volume
sent out to a commercial lab or company-owned central lab is more than 50 percent, on a
global basis.

There are reasons for this difference. One of the reasons cited for this phenomenon is the
higher availability of qualified food labs. Another reason cited for the variance is that
outsourcing is more expensive than in-house analysis. An outsourced pathogen test may cost
as much as five times the amount of in-house analysis on a per-sample basis (not considering
instrumentation, capital, and labour costs). Some companies have confirmed that outsourcing
does indeed cost more, but outsourcing is a strategy for risk reduction, not for cost savings.
This strategy may be less affordable to food processors in other regions of the world.

Regardless of the many reasons for outsourcing, the result is a large reduction in the volume
of samples being analysed at in-house labs. With a smaller volume, operating an in-house lab
becomes even more expensive. This has led many companies to outsource their non-pathogen microbiology testing, as well, leading some to close their plant labs completely.

Additional Questions to be Explored

With this understanding of the background to the growth and current use of rapid
microbiological methods, it is worthwhile to continue to explore this topic.

The emphasis being on the details on which methods are being used; the views of food
production facilities on what attributes of the tests are most important; how fast is fast
enough in terms of the analyses and the turnaround time for testing; and what even faster
tests would enable food production facilities to accomplish.

Where would the growth continue – would the use of rapid microbiological method use in
commercial labs continue to drive, or if a plateau is likely to occur? Will rapid microbiological
method technology evolve to the point where it may be acceptable to bring back the analysis
to an in-house lab?

Look for answers to those questions and others with us as the industry continues to grow and
evolve with the everchanging times.