Austin’s Food and Ag Lab: Keeping Your Meals Safe
Local ACC-backed start-up fights the good fight for food safety and more
Truth: One of the things that you never want to get, even in our obsessively acquisitive society, is Listeria. "Most people with invasive listeriosis require hospital care," notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "and about one in five people with the infection die."
Not a fun time, to say the least. So you'll want to avoid consuming foods that might contain any Listeria bacteria. But that's all foods, potentially – and research confirms that those bacteria can survive refrigeration and even freezing. So you'll probably want to get food from companies that regularly test products for Listeria and other such pathogens, right? To make sure those bacteria aren't in there? And, following the trail of quality, you'll want to know that the testing company itself has been certified by some rigorous supervisory organization.
"We're certified by the International Standards Organization," says Darren Toczko, founder of Food and Ag Lab LLC, a young company operating out of the Austin Community College Bioscience Incubator. "That's like the gold standard," says Toczko. "USDA labs are under the same certification, and the state lab for Texas is under that certification, but in Austin, we're the only certified private lab with the scope of doing microbiology testing for companies."
Toczko started out as a food microbiologist for Bar-S Foods in Oklahoma in 1998, and was recruited to Snap Kitchen in Austin 18 years later. "I was the vice president of quality assurance and food safety at Snap, and I started looking for a local lab to use – and pretty quickly realized that there wasn't any." So, like the character in Somerset Maugham's "The Verger," an excellent bit of short fiction that you really should read sometime, Toczko took matters into his own hands.
"We started this business a little over a year ago," says the tall, ginger-haired fellow, a trace of pride shading his soft-spoken tones, "and we've been very successful." What's allowed Toczko and his associates to bootstrap such a technology-heavy enterprise is the biosciences division of ACC's Incubator program. It's a program, operating in the new and burgeoning Highland campus, that's so remarkably robust and diverse (it includes an industry-lauded fashion lab, for instance) that we'll be reporting more on it in the future. Right now, we're telling you about the Food and Ag Lab.
"You can't start a lab accredited," says Toczko, "because it has to have records to review, to make sure your process is in place – that you have the proper policies, programs, procedures, structure, and insurance. And then you send that in to a certification body – the ISO, in this case – and they review your records and ask you a lot of questions and, once they're satisfied, then they'll send somebody out. So they sent somebody out to watch over my shoulder for three days, making sure we're doing things up to par. And they found a few issues – forms that needed initials on them, where we didn't have a place for that – a few little startup things that were missed. And once all the T's are crossed and the I's are dotted, then they give you the certification."
Right. And then it's done and done, and the company just kind of glides from there?
"There's also proficiency testing involved," says Toczko, generously abstaining from an eye roll. "So we'll get unknown samples sent to us, and we have to analyze those and send them to an outside resource – and they tell us if we were right or not. And," he grins, "we've been right every time. And then we send those results to the certifying body, because that's part of their checks and balances to make sure we're doing things correctly."
So this is the instrumentality that's in place, hallelujah, to keep food consumers from getting sick and/or dying – whether from Listeria, Salmonella, Campylobacter, various strains of E. coli, or whatever. But testing labs aren't just about helping to prevent bad things from happening. A lot of science is about general quantifying – and that's necessary in the food biz, too.
"A lot of the testing we do isn't food safety per se, even though that's our main focus," says Toczko. "Sometimes it's a company that produces, say, probiotics – like yogurt or kombucha – and they're working with beneficial microorganisms. They wanna be able to say, 'We've got 10 million probiotics in the product you're going to consume,' and we make sure there are actually 10 million in there. Sometimes it might fall short and they'll have to tweak their process and send in a new sample, like, 'Okay, count this one,' until the numbers they need have been verified. We also work with a few local coffee companies, doing caffeine analysis, quantifying the amount of caffeine in products. We do that with what we call HPLC – high-pressure liquid chromatography." He gestures toward a machine among several other machines in a shining room that's filled with apparatuses straight outta Tech Lab central casting. "The samples are put into these tiny vials and different wavelengths of ultraviolet light shine through them to reveal how much caffeine's in there."
And this sort of steady, thorough, certified testing is why Austin's Food and Ag Lab is flourishing. "We've got over 30 clients now," says Toczko, "and most of them are in Austin. A couple of them are out-of-state, due to previous connections I've had, so we've got clients in New Jersey and Oklahoma, but the rest of them are in Texas and most of them are right here in town."
And surely there are a few high-profile businesses that everyone's heard of, right? Some local favorites? "I don't tell people who those brands are," says Toczko, a professional stickler, after all, "because we've got nondisclosure agreements in place."
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