BELLINGHAM - As food inspection receives more scrutiny from the public, a local laboratory is helping food producers get through the maze of regulations.
Exact Scientific Services Inc. recently received a key international standard certification, called the ISO 17025, which indicates its testing methods meet a strict standard of guidelines, including the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Only a handful of labs in Washington have this certification.
Exact can perform a variety of tests for its clients, including checking for food-borne bacteria, whether a product is gluten-free, or if a product actually has the ingredients listed on the label.
While testing is the focus of the laboratory, which is in the Irongate Business Park, Exact also has been offering services to help food producers figure out what they need to do to be in the market.
Owner Kent Oostra grew up in Lynden and worked for berry processors. He currently has a small farm and can see firsthand some of the challenges farmers have, particularly getting food to the national or international market.
Given how intertwined the global food industry is these days, testing for food-borne illnesses such as salmonella is important because an outbreak can quickly spread around the world.
"Food is now a part of interstate commerce, so what's done here affects products worldwide," Oostra said.
For the seven years Exact has been in business, Oostra said the company has helped food producers address a variety of issues including:
testing the soil to figure out what nutrients are needed or are unnecessary;
helping decipher a list of requirements from a national store chain;
staying on top of changing government regulations.
Local clients include Barleans, Enfield Farms and Edaleen Dairy.
"What I enjoy most about this is helping a client succeed," Oostra said. "This is a good place to work because you feel like you are a part of doing something good."
The company has had a steady 10 to 15 percent annual growth rate in recent years and currently has 16 employees, with the industry itself is in an expansion mode, given new testing rules such as the Global Food Safety Commission Initiative. That has meant that along with the local companies, the Bellingham firm is working with clients around the world.
"People want to know the food is safe or that their supplements have the correct vitamins," Oostra said.
For some farmers, having someone else doing the testing can be reassuring for the farmer and customers.
"A third-party lab negates the potential for conflict of interest, and an ISO-certified lab negates any concerns for testing procedures," said Laura Macaulay, quality assurance manager at Lynden's Enfield Farms, which grows and processes raspberries and blueberries. She added that a third-party lab is what customers prefer.
One other important aspect of checking food safety in recent years is the testing of irrigation water, Oostra said. Bacteria in the water could end up on the food.
Macaulay agreed about the need to test irrigation water, saying it means more to her than being part of her job.
"As a consumer, that makes me feel a lot better," she said.