Serving up a safe and happy Christmas – an interview with John Pratt
John Pratt, the Director of LGC AXIO Proficiency Testing, spent almost 20 years working in forensic science before transferring to the proficiency testing (PT) sector – first joining LGC in 2004 and becoming the company’s General Manager of UK Proficiency Testing in 2017. He lives in a village near Warrington in Cheshire, with his wife, Jen, a travel and events company Managing Director, and their two children: Archie, 15, and Tess, 13. Here, John talks about what Christmas means to him – as a family man, cyclist and proficiency testing professional - the common ground between forensic science and PT, and what AXIO customers can look forward to in 2023.
Do you have any Christmas traditions or plans?
For me, Christmas is mainly about family, eating, drinking - and cycling! I’m a keen cyclist, so as well as the usual Christmas celebrations, I'm going to attempt the Rapha Festive 500 – which is where you try to cover 500 kilometres in the period from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day. The fact that it’s Christmas - and so there will be a few mornings where I might not be quite as quick off the mark as usual, or when I’ll have other commitments - makes it extra challenging, so I will probably try and find rides where it is quite flat! As a family, we’ll probably do a few cycles and walks around the village, taking in the Christmas atmosphere and perhaps ending up for a meal at the local pub – that kind of thing.
What’s your favourite part about Christmas?
Because the PT team is so well organised - and because of the nature of the work, it allows us to plan and schedule in advance – meaning that we can really switch off for those few days between Christmas and New Year, so it's a proper break. What I most enjoy about this time of the year is being able to focus on home life, without any worries in the back of my mind about what else is going on.
Tell us a bit more about your time in forensic science
I went to work for the UK Forensic Science Service straight after my degree in Microbial and Cellular Biology - as a DNA analyst to start with. That mainly involved profiling swabs from arrested individuals for submission onto the DNA database, where they could also be referenced against potential crime stains. I progressed through to becoming a casework examiner - examining items of clothing and objects for bodily fluids – and then on to becoming a court reporting officer. I was involved in a lot of different types of cases, from the relatively trivial burglary type, all the way through to helping identify suspects in murder inquiries. After that, I moved into management, and started to enjoy the customer-facing side of things.
That forensic service idea of protecting and serving people aligns almost exactly with the LGC mission of 'science for a safer world’. Is it a concept which is important to you?
I started in forensic science when I had just turned 21, so feeling part of a scientific service that helps to keep the world that bit safer was there from the formative years of my career. That sense of wanting to help and serve the needs of others is important to me personally, but also central to how AXIO operates. With us, you’re not just buying a product, you're buying a service. Proficiency testing is a means of performance evaluation of laboratory measurements or tests, and everything we do needs to be thought of as being a service for our customers. This includes when we’re understanding our customers’ needs, producing samples, taking customer orders, shipping, receiving the customers results, assessing performance, and producing PT reports
Are there any other ways that forensic science and proficiency testing are similar?
What they have in common is that they both have real-world consequences, and both have a real focus on quality. In forensic science, you're very, very aware of the connection between the science, the type of work that you're doing, and what the outcome of that is in the real world. There’s also the feeling that you're doing good work – it’s necessary and important. You have that high level of responsibility to make sure you're getting it right. When it came to quality standards, you would of course be accredited to ISO/IEC 17025, the international lab testing standard, but then you would also have police force expectations and the UK forensic regulator adding another layer of governance on top of that. It’s the same for many of the labs we work with across the globe: yes, proficiency testing is an important part of achieving or maintaining accreditation to ISO 17025 and ISO 15189, and as an accredited provider we help them to achieve it. But there will be other local and international regulatory requirements that they will have to meet, they will need to demonstrate competency to their stakeholders, which are some of the other examples of how PT helps to support the total quality focus.
And what are the key differences?
The first main one is the diversity of end sectors and geographies we serve. My time in forensic science was almost entirely focused on serving the criminal justice sector in the UK, whereas AXIO PT is serving testing labs in over 165 counties who themselves are serving a wide range of sectors – from food and beverages to environmental, clinical, forensic and consumer safety work as well.
The other key difference is that proficiency testing is a service which is a critical quality assurance tool for testing labs, rather than the testing being a service in itself. That may seem obvious, but it’s important to pay attention to it. We understand that laboratories need confidence in their measurements and the methods they use to produce them – and proficiency testing is an excellent tool to deliver that confidence, because you're sending laboratories something that is effectively unknown to put through their entire testing process, to see what result they get at the end. It's not just measuring the accuracy of the instrument used, it's the entire process!
We need to remember that processing a sample as part of proficiency testing is just one of hundreds or thousands of samples our customers will be processing each day or week, often under very challenging turnaround time expectations. And I believe that drives an obligation for us to be easy to do business with. Yes, we should ensure our PTs provide a challenge to the customer’s testing processes, but we need to make everything else about the customer interaction as easy as possible.
How has 2022 been for AXIO?
Some of it was quite a challenge – such as new and tightening regulations on customs borders, and big shifts in the geopolitical landscape. We have PT samples going all over the world, and we're increasingly having to adapt to different approaches in different parts of it. For instance, where import permits may now be required for certain sample types, we've been setting up transport logistics hubs within other LGC sites for AXIO, and obtaining import permits at those sites for our products, so that we can import our PT samples into the countries and keep that burden away from the customer. That's been a big challenge - both in terms of getting those processes in place, but also adjusting to the extra time it takes for the PT samples to reach our customers’ labs. The team have been fantastic in adapting, and we’re very well positioned heading into 2023.
Back to Christmas, how does PT help to keep Christmas safe?
There are so many ways, it’s difficult to cover them all briefly. But one obvious AXIO scheme to touch on that’s quite festive is BAPS – our brewing analytes scheme, which helps ensure that the beer we drink is consistently a high quality. Our PTs also support ensuring gluten-free, and low- or no alcohol beer, are just that – which allows a wider section of the population the chance to enjoy them.
Herbs and spices are another big part of the Christmas experience: who wants stuffing without the herbs? But, especially at this time of year, they are susceptible to sometimes quite dangerous adulteration. We do have a lot of authenticity samples for the food and drinks market, but one recent addition is our authenticity of herbs and spices sample.
Then, when you’re looking at toy safety, there’s a lot of concern and regulation around protecting children from phthalates that may be released because they’re not chemically bound to certain products. Our TOYTEST PT sample for phthalates promotes greater safety, because it helps to ensure labs are accurately quantifying the levels of those chemicals in toy materials.
As a final point, we also work in the realm of environmental monitoring of food and beverage manufacturing sites – because a lot of the potential risk in the food sector comes from transfer of contaminants, such as microbes and allergens, from surfaces within those sites. And so, we provide PT schemes supporting the testing that ensures those food manufacturing areas are clean, which of course reduces the risk of contamination.
What should we look forward to from AXIO in 2023?
As we've come out of COVID ways of working, it has enabled us to bring more samples into the 2023 catalogue than we have done previously. And why are we doing that? Well, if customers need to routinely test certain types of samples, we’re trying to produce PT samples that are representative of the range of materials our customers have to test . In particular, we've had a big push in developing allergen samples – of course, that’s been increasingly on the regulatory radar, and in the news, so food manufacturers are very concerned with making sure that their products are free of particular allergens. Accurate, reliable testing that food manufacturers and brands have confidence in is key, and by working with AXIO, those labs can demonstrate that expertise.
Also looking forward into 2023 – and staying with the theme of AXIO being easy to do business with - we're developing a new area of our PORTAL reporting system where people can easily access hints and tips about how to get the most from their participation in our PT schemes. PORTAL is where our customers go to upload their results from their round participation, and it’s where they access their reports to check on their performance. But, in addition, we’ll be launching an easy to navigate ‘how to’ content page, so that our customers can get answers to any questions they may have quickly. This is being released in early 2023, and I’m already looking forward to hearing our customers’ feedback.