Automated testing of thousands of milk samples a boon for U of G lab
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Four to eight thousand: That's the number of sample vials a technician used to handle every day in the central milk-testing lab run by U of G's Laboratory Services.
Those samples continue to arrive every day at the Stone Road facility from 5,000 dairy farms across Ontario, but now a robot happily sorts them for a battery of screening tests for milk quality and composition. This spares the lab's staff from the mind-numbing job and ensures precise handling of samples used to assure the safety of the province's milk supply and to pay producers, says lab supervisor Charlie Fulton.
A $100,000 robotic cell was installed in the lab in the fall. Enclosed in a glass and wire cage, the machine scans entire pallets with their arrays of clear sample vials, each containing about 40 millilitres of milk. (Called a Flex Picker, the robot itself looks vaguely spider-like, with its long, gangly arm equipped with a bar-code scanner and a suction-cup “hand” to lift individual vials and sort them into racks.)
While it sorts out samples for the subsequent testing line, its “brain” shares data with the lab's information management system to help track individual samples. That management system also follows the samples through analysis for milk composition (proportions of fat, protein, lactose and milk solids).
Fulton says that information is crucial for the lab and its contracted clients: Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO), the Ontario Dairy Council and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). Testing here provides the data needed to ensure smooth operation of the province's supply- managed system of milk production, he says. DFO is by law the only vendor of milk to the province's dairies, and the lab supplies the information that enables DFO to pay producers based on composition.
(Nearly all the milk tested at the lab comes from dairy farms, but it also screens samples of sheep and goat milk for OMAFRA.)
On the food-safety side, the lab also tests for various disease indicators, including presence of bacteria. Measuring levels of somatic cells, for example, enables technicians to detect possible mastitis infection back on the farm. That information returns to producers through DFO. Fulton says the lab's information management system ensures that same-day data are available to farmers through a 1-800 number or on the Internet.
Samples are also checked for freezing-point estimates (a way to determine whether water has been added) and antibiotics.
Fulton says the new robot has proved to be a boon for the lab's employees. Not only does the equipment ensure rapid, sure sorting and testing, but it also eliminates a potential health and safety concern for the staff. Formerly, a technician manually logged in the day's samples using a bar-code scanner, a task that left workers vulnerable to repetitive strain injuries.
The same robot is used in the food industry for sorting and packaging products.
A centralized testing system for Ontario's milk supply has operated since the late 1970s. That system has been automated all the way out to those 5,000 dairy farms, each assigned to one of 10 regular pickup routes.
Contract drivers collect milk samples from individual farms, scanning bar codes and entering information into hand-held computers. That allows the lab's information management system to keep track of individual samples as they're trucked from the farm to refrigerated depots and then on to the Guelph lab.
Not surprisingly, Fulton says about one-third of his job is logistics management. The U of G biophysics graduate started driving a ministry truck in 1983, collecting those samples and delivering them to the former downtown Guelph location.
The milk-testing lab is one of several lab sections within the food, agricultural and environmental testing side of Lab Services. The other main testing section is animal health testing, conducted in the Animal Health Lab in Guelph and Kemptville.
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