Keeping Christmas Safe
Dr Matthew Whetton is the Head of Technical Operations for LGC AXIO Proficiency Testing, and has almost 15 years’ experience in the field. In this role, Matthew is responsible for the production, development and technical operation of over 50 proficiency testing schemes - covering chemistry, clinical analysis and microbiological testing in a diverse range of analytical fields.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas for Dr Matthew Whetton. From his home office window, he has a view of the West Pennine Moors, freshly covered with snow by Storm Arwen – and like most of us, he’s hoping for a more traditional holiday than last year’s Covid-disrupted affair. Here Matthew answers questions about Christmas at AXIO, how proficiency testing helps make the holidays safe for us all, PT samples to look out for in the New Year, and much more.
What kind of Christmas are you hoping for?
I think a lot of people this year are just trying to make up for last year. They’ll be hoping to have family Christmases again – that seems to be the order of the day. Certainly, what I want – and the people that I’ve spoken to want – is a chance to get together.
Will it be business as usual over for the PT team over the festive season?
We’ve been quite organised in that respect. Because proficiency testing involves despatching the test materials and then allowing the participant labs four to five weeks to do the analysis, if we schedule things correctly, we can get all of the shipping done before Christmas - and then wait for the results to come back. So we tend to be closed for the duration between Christmas and New Year.
How does proficiency testing help keep us safe at Christmas?
All of the food that’s on your dinner table on Christmas Day is going to have health, safety and quality regulations. And all of the testing to support that is, in turn, supported by proficiency testing. The toys we buy are exactly the same: whether it’s a US or a European standard, they all need to comply to ensure they are safe to use. And again, PT is instrumental in ensuring that the companies doing the testing are competent to do that, and detect the things that need to be detected.
Our DAPS Alcoholic Drinks Scheme supports the testing of distilled spirits: illegal products are not produced under the same controlled conditions as legitimate products and may contain things like methanol, which is highly dangerous. We also have the QMS Food Microbiology Scheme for meat, which evaluates the competency of labs testing for the presence of pathogenic organisms such as Salmonella or E. coli. The TOYTEST scheme is the one that supports the labs ensuring toys don’t contain small parts which could be choking hazards, checking flammability and other testing such as the noise output of toys – it’s amazing how loud some of them can be!
Is it just safety that we need to test for at Christmas?
In addition to safety, there’s the ‘Are you getting what you paid for?’ aspect – and often safety and authenticity go hand-in-hand. If a product isn’t authentic, then it’s much more likely to be unsafe. And so a lot of our PT schemes look at laboratories’ ability to tell whether products are authentic or not. For example, the measurements that are made in spirits and beer help the distilling companies to determine whether the product on the shelves is authentic or not.
What about the expensive olive oil or wine that I bought for Christmas? How can I be sure that they come from where the manufacturer claims?
The idea of being able to determine where something comes from is becoming more important, but it’s still not widely done, and it is a highly specialised analysis.
We have a team in Teddington that uses one of the common techniques to do that, but it takes a lot of expertise and a lot of background information to be able to determine whether something is from the area that you expect it to be. The differences are going to get quite small – an extra virgin olive oil is still going to be extra virgin olive oil, so all the gross parameters are going to be the same. Even some of the smaller parameters are going to be broadly the same and you’re starting to try and filter out minute differences. It can be multiple things that are measured, and then you’re relying on a complex algorithm to determine whether that group of measurands suggest that two things are different or the same.
What kind of year has it been in PT, given the pandemic?
It’s been very challenging. Like some of the other divisions within LGC, we’ve had people on site for the whole time. We haven’t closed. We haven’t changed what we do in terms of the schemes, because the labs are still out there, the labs are still having to do the testing, and we need to support them. It has been a lot more difficult. Some of the people can work from home, but obviously if you’re in the lab producing samples, it’s not possible. Mostly, we will be taking a well-earned break this Christmas!
What are the PT schemes and samples to look out for in the New Year?
We particularly like to see new products that are technically challenging come out. Some of the most satisfying things from a scientific perspective are not always – to be honest (laughs) – the most successful things commercially because they can often only be performed by a few niche laboratories. But any of the things we’ve spent time developing are important for us, since each of the samples supports our customers and in turn their customers. That’s why we like seeing them go out there. A lot of our requests for new samples are from customers. They’ll say: ‘I do this testing, but I can’t find a PT for it, can you help us?’ And we try and develop them. We also try to respond to things that are in the public eye, so a recent one is Ethylene Oxide in food. That’s been a big issue – and so that’s a PT that we’ve launched fairly recently, and we’ll be looking to broaden out with some new matrices in the New Year. We’re still seeing withdrawals and alerts coming through on that, so that’s always a sign there’s still an interest out there. We’re also working on allergens quite extensively, because they’re a real concern for people, and making sure the analysis is correct could actually be lifesaving.