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What Are the Costs of a Food-Testing Lab?

Jennifer Post

Set a reasonable budget for food-testing services.

Laboratory tests on food are an essential part of the manufacturing process. If a manufacturer doesn't do proper food testing, the company is at risk of litigation if a problem occurs later. Food is tested for different reasons, including confirming the food is free of contaminants and determining the chemical composition with nutritional values for the product.

Why is food testing important?

For safety purposes, food must be tested to determine if there are any of the following contaminants:

  • Chemicals: Food testing looks for any types of chemicals, such as pesticides and antibiotics, that the food could've been exposed to prior to testing.

  • Biological agents: For this test, the company searches for bacteria that could produce illness if the food item is ingested.

  • Physical objects: Food testing confirms no foreign objects have been found within the food items.

How do you test for food contamination?

There are different techniques food laboratories can use to test for contamination. To test for food contamination, a sample of the food item is analyzed in a laboratory. Pathogen tests are used on the sample to determine if any forms of bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella, are present. Mass spectrometry is used to search for toxins in food items, such as pesticides and antibiotics. 

Bottom LineBottom Line: Food testing is required to confirm any food items you sell are safe and free of contaminants. Laboratories also provide nutritional content testing as a way for companies to abide by FDA labeling rules.

What are some ways food can become contaminated?

There are multiple ways for food to become contaminated during the manufacturing process. Beef and poultry are particularly prone to contamination. For fresh fruits and vegetables, the items can become contaminated if they are cleaned with water that has traces of animal or human feces. During preparation, food is subject to contamination; for instance, if the person handling the food hasn't washed their hands properly. Cross-contamination is possible in kitchens. [Read Article: Food Safety Guide: What to Know and Where to Get Certified]

How much do food-testing labs cost?

Food-testing services are used to test products for everything from contaminants to the level of nutrients. This is done so the information can be placed on a nutrition label. This is of critical importance and is not something a business in the food industry can go without. That's why it is important to ensure this is accounted for during your budgeting process.

It is always a good idea to allocate extra money in your budget for unexpected food testing. Food-testing companies often charge per test, so you can determine before testing how many tests you will need to have run. 

FYIFYI: Be sure to include retests in your budget planning in case a contaminant is found or a nutrient is low.

Standard and additional costs of food testing

Dr. Bryan Quoc Le, a food scientist and food industry consultant, said typical costs range from $100 for basic routine microbial analysis to over $2,000 for extensive shelf-life tests. 

"Hidden fees not included in the base cost of a test are the cost of shipping and handling of the food sample to the lab," Quoc Le said. "Samples need to remain cooled on transit and require dry ice or ice packs to keep cold."

Quoc Le noted other costs, including the need for a third-party food scientist or food safety expert to analyze and interpret the data, as well as provide recommendations to address potential concerns. The standard rate for a consulting food scientist is $150 per hour.

Cost of each test

Quoc Le said that while each test has its own associated costs, sometimes tests can be bundled together depending on how the sample is analyzed.

"Other factors include the sensitivity of the test; the type of test; the type of microorganism, contaminant, nutrient or molecule the test is evaluating; and then [turnaround time] if the concern is time-sensitive," he said. "Some contaminants or components have several test variants associated with them, each with their own costs. For example, the USDA has their own guidelines for how certain microbial contaminants should be tested, versus other regulatory or certifying bodies."

In-house food-testing labs 

The cost of an in-house food-testing lab depends on what the lab would be designed for. However, it could cost $1 million.

"Typically, food safety is the highest concern for a food company, so the lab would need to be outfitted for microbiological and allergen analysis," Quoc Le said. "Costs would include analytical equipment, incubators, autoclaves, disposables, chemicals, solvents, refrigerators, freezers, measuring equipment, ice machines and glassware. One-time-use assay kits, which are used to actually identify the presence of a contaminant or nutrient, could cost anywhere between $150 [and] $500."

Reasons to hire a food-testing lab

1. To test for microbiology

There are many things that could contaminate food-grade products. Food-testing services charge per microbiological sample for each organism being tested. The price depends on how labor-intensive the test is for each organism, as it varies by contaminant.

An average microbiological test at a food-testing company, for one sample, is $20 to $50. Most tests have a flat fee; however, some microbiological tests may be priced based on the request, such as identifying a bacteria or foreign substance.

2. To evaluate the nutritional content of your products

Making claims on a nutrition label is a serious business. Consumers purchase products oftentimes based on particular nutritional claims made by the company. In order to qualify for certain nutritional claims, the food item has to fall within a very specific range.

For example, an "excellent" source of calcium needs to have more calcium content than that of a product that claims to be a "good" source of calcium. Food analysis laboratories can test your products to determine exactly how much of a nutrient is included. These tests can cost from $20 to $30 to more than $100. This is due to the complexity of testing for nutrients.

Some tests are relatively simple, such as measuring protein or sodium, while others, such as those for sugars or total fat, are much more involved, which is reflected in their prices.

3. To evaluate the taste of your food products

During the development stage of a new product, the taste is crucial to evaluate. There are food-testing companies that specialize in sensory evaluation of consumer products. The cost varies based on the request. This type of testing is much more involved than typical laboratory testing because it is conducted by a panel of trained tasters. The cost for this can range from $200 per hour to several thousands of dollars for a comprehensive project.

Image Credit: Atstock Productions / Shutterstock
Jennifer Post
business.com Contributing Writer
Jennifer Post is a professional writer with published works focusing on small business topics including marketing, financing, and how-to guides. She has also published articles on business formation, business software, public relations and human resources. Her work has also appeared in Fundera and The Motley Fool.