» Labmate: Health Protection Agency

09 March, 2015

The Food and Environmental Proficiency Testing Unit (FEPTU) is part of the Health Protection Agency (HPA).  Within the HPA, FEPTU has responsibility for providing microbiology proficiency testing schemes. This involves preparing simulated samples of known but undisclosed content that can be introduced into food and water microbiology laboratories to provide an external assessment of their routine procedures. Using HPA PT schemes reassures staff in the testing laboratories and also the clients who commission the tests that the results are accurate. FEPTU customers include laboratories in the public and private sectors in the UK and in 96 other countries. All the FEPTU schemes are UKAS-accredited.

 Quality is of vital importance, as Julie Russell, Head of FEPTU, says:

 “We provide proficiency testing schemes to help testing laboratories be assured that they are performing their tests to the best possible quality. Quality is very important to the HPA – our own tests have to be done to the highest possible standards. Our FEPTU customers are food and water testing laboratories. They may be laboratories in the public sector, private labs, or even supermarkets requiring testing of foodstuffs or environmental waters. But ultimately, our customers are the public – because that’s where HPA responsibility lies; the HPA is responsible for protecting people’s health. HPA staff also work with many other organisations such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, USA and the World Health Organisation (WHO). ”

Scientist examining wheat grains in petri dishes. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

 UKAS accreditation is one way in which the unit can demonstrate standards, competence and impartiality. As Julie Russell explains: “We wanted accreditation for our schemes so that they would have recognition not just within the United Kingdom, but overseas as well”.

 FEPTU decided to become accredited as soon as UKAS announced they would be accrediting proficiency testing schemes: “When my unit was established there was no accreditation available for proficiency testing.  UKAS accreditation gives the schemes wider acceptability and recognition that they work to particular standards. Therefore, when we talk to other laboratories and other organisations we can say that the scheme has recognition. It means we have more participants, making the statistical evaluation of the results more robust.”

Having UKAS accreditation also made sound business sense: “FEPTU does not receive any central funding, so we have to generate our own income from the registration fees we charge for participation in the scheme.”

 The HPA is also the only organisation that has been awarded UKAS accreditation for producing reference materials for food and water microbiology laboratories. Julie explains: “When UKAS announced that they would be organising a pilot study for the accrediting reference material providers we were determined to be involved. The HPA had developed a new format for preserving micro-organisms, LENTICULE discs, which we believed would provide ideal reference materials for food and water microbiology laboratories. We were delighted to be awarded UKAS accreditation for the reference materials in July 2006; as with PT, this accreditation has given our RM products acceptability worldwide.”

 Gaining UKAS accreditation is the culmination of a lot of hard work on both sides, involving joint consultation and investigating other scheme providers. Julie says: “We started working in 2000 as a steering group for PT accreditation. UKAS appreciated that we had already been running proficiency for 10 years, so had some expertise in the field, and they were prepared to listen to us. On the other hand, we had a lot to learn from them, as we did not have formal systems and procedures in place.”

 As Julie explains, confidence in FEPTU is of paramount importance: “If we are challenging the quality of other laboratories we have to be working to the highest possible standards. UKAS has helped with that. We need to ensure traceability – the right organisms at the right levels.  We also need to work with our customers, if they have a complaint/query we can trace that back and make sure we are dealing with it in the most efficient way. 

 “UKAS has made us look at customer feedback – are we providing the service our customers want, not what we think they want? This is an important aspect that we hadn’t fully considered before working with UKAS – every year UKAS assessors come back and evaluate the work we are doing.  It is very much a two way process.”

 Julie believes that that two-way process has had a significant impact on the success of the scheme: “It was very much a partnership between us and UKAS.  We work together to ensure that the systems are in place to make sure the service we are providing is of the best possible quality and also that it is recognised by the testing laboratories and their customers.”

 Julie believes that ultimately, UKAS-accreditation brought a number of benefits to the FEPTU schemes. There are also internal benefits: “It is cost effective and improves efficiency. Real benefits come when best practices and procedures become part of the everyday routine.

 Having UKAS accreditation has also opened up new marketplaces for the unit: “It gives us far more credibility, and increases our customer base both in the UK and overseas. I don’t think any credible laboratories in the UK would accept a proficiency testing scheme that is not accredited by UKAS.  Supermarkets will outsource their tests to private laboratories and they need to be sure that their tests are being performed to the highest possible standard.”

 Finally, Julie believes that any cost associated with achieving UKAS accreditation is far outweighed by the benefits: “If there were a false negative report for Salmonella it could have an impact on public health, the reputations of both the food business operator and the testing laboratory, as well as a significant financial impact.  Sometimes when people are looking at quality they look at a false economy.  They believe that UKAS accreditation and proficiency testing are expensive.  In reality the cost of getting the results wrong is so much greater.”