Food Safety Testing in China: On the Fast Track

Food safety testing has been a booming market in China for instrument companies, especially since the new Food Safety Law was implemented in fall 2015. The rapid traction that food testing is gaining in China has resulted in many opportunities for instrument companies in the market. Although there are subtle differences in the way food testing is carried out in China, the overall process is quite similar to the US.

In April, the State Council for the People’s Republic of China released a new guideline emphasizing proper management and structural reform for the food testing industry, urging federal departments to hasten the development of a legal system that will eliminate the manufacture and sale of fraudulent foods. The guideline also indicated that food-related industries (i.e., environmental) are required to implement “agricultural standardization.” These objectives are achieved in part through obtaining certifications from federal agencies and passing inspections by QC organizations, such as pre-shipment, during production, loading and food check inspections.


Compliance and Lab Types

AsiaInspection (AI) is a prominent Hong Kong-based QC and compliance company that provides QC services for a variety of industries, including apparel, jewelry, cosmetics and food. Within the food industry, AI provides QC and compliance services for fresh and processed foods, seafood, meat and poultry, and beverages, as well as food containers. The company also conducts supplier audit programs, product inspections and lab testing.

A significant aspect of China’s food safety plan is to “align China’s food safety standards with international standards.”

According to Sebastien Breteau, founder and CEO of AI, the latest research indicates that the food safety testing market in China is poised for a 9.9% CAGR between 2016 and 2020, ultimately reaching $791.5 million in 2020. “Over half (55%) of this market currently belongs to state-owned testing organizations,” Mr. Breteau told IBO. “The rest is divided between private testing companies, with foreign ones taking prevalence—35% of the total [market] or over 75% of the private food testing market.” Mr. Breteau explained that there are requirements that third-party labs must meet in order to test food in China, such as the mandatory accreditation by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment (CNAS) and the China Metrology Accreditation (CMA). “In addition, China’s state certification and supervision departments are looking to work with certification agencies to offer voluntary product certification in such areas as organic foods, environmentally friendly products, energy and water saving initiatives, pollution-free agriculture, etc.,” he noted.

As Mr. Breteau indicated, since the frameworks concerning the Food Safety Law are still under development, so is implementation. “The new Food Safety Law is at the core of China’s five-year food safety plan, which will see the creation of a comprehensive legislative system featuring the implementation rules for the Food Safety Law, a number of administrative rules (for pesticides, fertilizers, soil pollution, dairy products, etc.), [and] multiple regulations on food labeling, traceability, information disclosure, incident investigation, import/export oversight, and more,” he explained. A significant aspect of this plan, Mr. Breteau stated, is to “align China’s food safety standards with international standards.”

Consequently, because the regulations involving standards and laws are still under development, unlike in the US, the food safety testing processes will have to adapt to the resulting regulations. “The scale of changes in China’s food safety is unprecedented—some 300 national standards will be updated or developed over the next five years, plus 6,600 maximum residue limits for pesticides and 270 limits for veterinary drugs,” Mr. Breteau said. “We expect it will take food testing laboratories 1–2 years to be fully aligned with the new regulations.”

Similar to the US, Chinese food testing labs usually fall into certain segments. As Yao Liang, senior segment specialist at PerkinElmer, explained, in China, there are three levels of labs that carry out food safety testing. First-level labs are comprised of government labs, such as national, provincial and certain higher-education labs. “These labs do food safety testing to help supervision and build standard methods,” Mr. Liang explained. Second-level labs include third-party testing labs which “see food safety testing as a business,” as Mr. Liang stated. “[These labs] help government and food companies do testing and provide testing data,” he said. “The labs in large food companies serve the role of testing centers for branches of the companies.” Finally, third-level labs conduct internal QC through their food safety testing, he stated.

When it comes to routine food testing, the majority of national and provincial labs have adequate capabilities, according to Yuhong Chen, Great China food market manager, and John Lee, global food market manager at Agilent Technologies. “In recent years, the government has focused more on improving the capabilities of local labs (i.e., city & county labs),” said Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. Some of these labs are upgraded from existing labs, while others are brand new. “Food safety risk assessment is mainly [conducted] in national, provincial and city labs,” explained Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. “Most of them are upgraded existing labs,” they noted, rather than brand new labs.


Training and Support

The level of expertise in Chinese food testing labs is largely based on the type of lab. Generally, as Mr. Liang stated, “[D]ifferent labs have different training needs. Some may focus on future applications, some may just follow the standard methods.” In first-level government labs, such as labs at the CFDA, CDC and higher-education labs, there is already an established use of analytical instruments, as Mr. Liang explained, such as GC, LC, AAS, ICP-MS and LC-MS/MS. “[Here,] the training needs change gradually from how to use these instruments to how make good use of instruments,” he said. “They are focusing more on application direction.” For second-level labs at major food companies or third-party testing labs, Mr. Liang stated. “[These labs] are focusing on the [complying with the law] and efficiency,” he said. “Training needs for them are more about equipment maintenance and application.” Third-level labs are within medium- and small-sized food companies, he said. “They use instruments just to meet the demand of China food safety regulations.” He added, “They need training on how to test the food according to the standard methods.”

A focus on application training is common in food testing labs in China. “In addition to basic product training (e.g., principle of products, hardware and software, daily maintenance and troubleshooting skills), there may be more dedicated application training sessions which would augment food regulations/standards training, and may be required by some food testing labs,” said Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. “Usually, application training would include topics such as sample preparation, instrumentation optimization, key points and tips for the method, data processing and potentially customized reporting.”

“We expect it will take food testing laboratories 1-2 years to be fully aligned with the new regulations.”

Additionally, as Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee explained, on-site application trainings conducted by analytical instrument vendors are preferred. “In each sub-segment, to improve the competency of the whole industry, some top-level labs also help the government organize the training periodically in that sub-segment,” said Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. “[For example], the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) helps organize a series of training on pesticides, vet drug, heavy metals, feed testing and food risk assessment training for Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) labs every year.”

This contrast in different training needs among different level labs is similar to the training process in US food testing labs, though there are some differences, according to Robert Packer, portfolio director, Infrared, at PerkinElmer. “In the US, private labs typically have high employee turnover rates and, as such, require more frequent new-user training,” Mr. Packer explained. “Government labs also differ in the US, in that they usually obtain their applications’ direction from bodies such as the AOAC and [its] working groups to develop methods using a wider spectrum of the industry.”

Service and support is a key component in Chinese food safety testing labs, with fast responses to customer requests being a major factor, according to Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. Some customers may be wary about high support fees and prices of parts, making cost an issue. Customers also hope that the service engineer can provide comprehensive support for  hardware and software, as well as applications. “For example, if a customer is having an issue obtaining the appropriate data for the targeted compounds in a specific matrix, but they are unsure of the reason, they would hope that the engineer could help them check the instrumentation hardware/status and solve the application issues together,” explained Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee.

Mr. Liang echoed these sentiments. “In China, instruments maintenance service and support is the most important need for almost all China food testing labs,” he said. “Method development or method building comes next.”

This is akin to the support desired from US food testing customers. “In the U.S., method development support is also important with companies willing to pay for this assistance,” noted Mr. Packer. “In terms of general instrument maintenance and service, companies are often willing to pay for preventative maintenance contracts but not to the extent seen in the pharma market; as such, some smaller companies will learn to handle general maintenance in house.”


Expenditures and Budgets

 Certain labs’ unwillingness to pay as often or as much for maintenance support may sometimes be a result of their budgets. In China, food testing labs’ expenditures are, in a sense, subject to government approval. “The purchases are federally mandated, in that the facilities, instruments and consumables must adhere to the requirements for the lab’s CNAS and CMA accreditation,” Mr. Breteau explained. “In turn, the China Food Safety Regulation Framework and the criteria established in the China Food Safety Standards are in line with CODEX standards.”

“In the U.S., private labs typically have high employee turnover rates and, as such, require more frequent new user training.”

This process has many parallels with US food safety testing. “In the US, the types of labs and the testing they carry out is very similar to China,” said Mr. Packer. For instance, the USDA’s Accredited Laboratory Program provides accreditation to nonfederal chemistry labs to test meat and poultry, as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires certain food testing to be conducted by accredited labs. This creates an association between commercial, third-party, and foreign labs and domestic government labs. The US government also provides funding for labs through its food safety initiatives, such as the aforementioned FSMA and the USDA’s Food Research Initiative. “With many US and non-US global food companies with facilities in China and the US, plus cooperation between the US FDA and the Chinese CFDA, the two models are similar,” Mr. Packer explained.

When it comes to the budgets of Chinese food safety testing labs, expenditures and funding is varied greatly. “There are currently no federal- or province-level restrictions for a food testing laboratory budget,” explained Mr. Breteau. “In practice, a testing lab’s budget can range from hundreds to tens of millions RMB, depending on the size of its facilities, variety of equipment and scope of testing services (different product groups, a variety of standards, water and soil testing, etc.).”

For Chinese testing labs, budgets can be limited, but not fixed. “Constrained means there is always a plan for the budget,” said Mr. Liang. “Flexible means the number and the specifications of the instruments can affect the budget.”

Much is dependent on what type/level the lab is. As Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee explained, federal labs receive their budgets from central and district governments. “In the past five years, the government has heavily invested in building up food inspection capabilities and improving the competency of food testing labs, and it will continue to invest in this over the next five years,” said Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. “The government has overall plans on its investment in each food sub-segment, focusing on different purposes.”

For example, as Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee explicated, for different level labs that are in the same sub-segment, the requirements differ based on testing capabilities. “The labs submit the budget request to the government,” said Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. “The budget requirements are dependent on which sub-segment the lab is from (e.g., FDA, MOA, [Ministry of Health], [State Administration of Grain], [General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine], etc), what level (e.g., central, province, city or county level), what kind of instruments the labs already have, how big the workload is, etc.” Therefore, the budgets of federal food testing labs in China are more constrained and fixed, but since they are funded by the government, they are likely to receive a higher overall budget, as Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee indicated.

However, for third-party labs, the size of the budget depends on the type of lab. “If [the third-party lab] has a governmental background, it may get the budget support from the government, and may be able to afford the expense by itself,” said Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. “While for the foreign-owned or private third-party labs, normally they need to afford the budget themselves due to self-financing.” Consequently, the budget for third-party labs is more constrained, according to Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee.


Customization as a Service

Since some Chinese food testing labs may be dealing with constrained budgets, instrument companies focus on meeting their unique needs to ensure they get the most out of the business partnership. For example, sometimes it is necessary for companies to tailor their instrumentation and consumables to meet customers’ needs, and companies can use their experience with US customers to inform their product development in China. As Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee explained, testing for multi-vet drug residues is currently a “hot topic” in China as well as globally. The majority of food testing labs in China follow MOA Notice 235, the chief regulation on the maximum residue limit for vet drugs. Traditionally, Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee stated, methods have involved dividing sample preparation and instrument measurement into different classes, which, excluding the matrix issues, can be challenging and time consuming. “Focusing on customers’ pain points and challenges, last year Agilent launched a vet drug application kit tailored for multi-vet drug testing that followed MOA Notice 235,” Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee told IBO. “The core of this solution is a sample preparation method ([an] innovative EMR technique to deal with high-fat matrix) and an optimized acquisition method for triple quadrupole LC/MS, from sample prep to reporting [and] analyzing 189 vet drugs by one injection. Complementing the workflow solution are supplies and application services that guarantee a fast start-up of [using] the application in the laboratory.”

The kit covers a broad array of animal-derived food matrices, such as beef, bovine liver, pork, swine liver, chicken, fish and eggs. The kit will be upgraded to include more compounds and matrix solutions when they become available. “Since vet drug testing is a hot topic globally, the kit was developed under the great teamwork between LC-MS and consumables application experts in Agilent in different regions,” said Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. “Based on the deep insights and rich experiences from US customers, these experts provided much of the input for this solution.” Though the solution mainly addressed the MOA Notice 235 in China, Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee indicated that it also covers the majority of analytes of vet drug residues that are required to be monitored in the US.

Another example is Agilent’s Intuvo 9000 GC, released in August 2016, which integrates GC, consumables, supplies, services and software. This system is “highly suitable” for third-party labs, Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee stated, as it has simplified food testing by making it smarter.

Sometimes it is necessary for companies to tailor their instrumentation and consumables to meet customers’ needs, and companies can use their experience with US customers to inform their product development in China.

PerkinElmer also developed a new method to address customer needs. For testing for lead in food products, AAS is the standard testing instrument, but Chinese sample methods involve long testing times (up to two hours per sample). “To increase testing speed , PerkinElmer developed a sample preparation method [that] cooperated with AAS, cutting the testing time from 2 hours for a sample to 10 minutes for a sample,” said Mr. Liang. “This new sample preparation method can now be used in dairy and edible oil testing.”

Similarly, in the US, PerkinElmer developed its innovative StayClean hot-surface-induced desolvation technology to address customer concerns. “In the US, there were often requests from food customers that their QQQ-MS technologies they were using required frequent cleaning,” said Mr. Packer. “This prompted PerkinElmer to design the QSight 200 QQQ MS with its patented StayClean source to help the food industry maximize uptime.”

Growing Segments

Maximizing uptime is an important factor in a market with rapidly growing segments. Routine analysis, which adheres to federal regulation requirements, and food safety risk assessment testing have become increasingly prevalent in the Chinese food testing market, with government labs performing the majority of these tests, as Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee stated. “Most of these customers are interested in unknown screening, harmful substances (e.g., pesticides residues, vet drugs residues, heavy metals, bio-toxins, organic pollutants, illegal additives, etc.), as well as metabolites, food fraud, food geography origin, etc.,” they said. Both hardware and software are of utmost importance in these instances. “Agilent provides a total MSD portfolio from LC-QQQ, LC-Q/TOF, to GC-MS, GC-QQQ, GC-Q/TOF and ICP-MS with MPP (mass professional profiling) software to help the success of these customers,” Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee added.

Other fast growing segments for food safety testing in China include pesticide residue, mycotoxin and veterinary drugs residue testing, according to Mr. Liang. This is parallel to the US, where these segments are also growing at a rapid pace. Mr. Packer notes that food adulteration and authenticity is also growing quickly in the US, but “from a small base.”

Food safety testing in China is a flourishing market, and, according to Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee, the Chinese government’s emphasis on food safety control has resulted in an emphasis on food safety inspection. Of the federal, third-party, food enterprise and higher-education food testing labs in China, Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee stated that third-party labs have grown exponentially in recent years. “Most of the requirements from third-party food labs are mainly for routine testing following up the food regulations,” said Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee. “The biggest challenges for them are more samples, more analytes, more complex matrix, lack of high-level laboratory technicians, cost, etc.”

Regardless of the country or region, the challenges and needs in the food testing market are universal in many ways. “Food issues are global issues,” Ms. Chen and Mr. Lee stated. “[The] most [popular] analytes and MRLs in China are similar to the ones in US—with the harmonization of food regulations, the difference may be smaller in future.”


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