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ABOUT INFAL

 

The existence of national food control systems is a key condition to protect the health and safety of national consumers; also, it is essential in enabling countries to assure the safety and quality of exported food and to guarantee that imported food conforms to national requirements.  The new global environment demands the countries to reinforce their control systems and adopt risk-based strategies.  Many countries have obstacles for their food control.  Government organisms responsible for this issue should face the following aspects: (a) increasing number of foodborne diseases and occurrence of new foodborne hazards; (b) rapidly changing technologies in food production, processing and marketing; (c) development of science-based food control systems with a focus on consumer protection; (d) international food trade and need for harmonization of increasingly demanding food safety standards and food quality; (e) changes in lifestyles, including the rapid urbanization process; (f) growing consumer awareness and increasing demand for information on food safety and quality issues.  In general, food risk specific concerns have been focussed on the following aspects: (a) microbiological risks; (b) pesticide residues; (c) inadequate use of food additives; (d) chemical contaminants, including veterinary drug residues, hormones and biological toxins; (e) adulterations; (f) genetically modified organisms, allergens, and (g) bioterrorism.

The basic elements of a National Food Control System are: (1) defined and updated food laws and standards; (2) management of food control program/system; (3) monitoring and epidemiology services; (4) laboratory services, and (5) information, education, communication and training of consumers.

Laboratories are an essential component of food control systems.  Taking this into consideration, and within the Pan American spirit of mutual cooperation between countries, in December 1997 PAHO hosted a consultation meeting for the establishment of the Inter American Network of Food Analysis Laboratories (INFAL) at PAHO headquarters, in which 24 countries of the region and 6 international organisms attending the meeting unanimously approved this proposal.

OBJECTIVES

INFAL mission is "to promote the assurance of food safety and food quality in the region of the Americas for the prevention of foodborne diseases, protect consumers' health and facilitate trade, encouraging and strengthening the development and interaction of food analysis laboratories within the framework of national integrated programs for food protection". Its general objectives are:

a.    promoting methodological harmonization and methodological equivalence of food analysis laboratories.

b.    promoting the implementation of equivalent quality management systems in INFAL laboratories (ISO/IEC 17025).

c.    strengthening the technical-scientific cooperation among the countries involved.

Its specific objectives are: developing an information system between INFAL laboratories; facilitating the availability of reference materials and the participation in interlaboratory tests; organizing and promoting training programs and continuous education, fostering the interchange of experiences and available resources in the region; promoting and encouraging intersectoral participation for the establishment and operation of national networks of food laboratories; promoting and encouraging the integration of INFAL laboratories to food protection and epidemiological surveillance programs.

ORGANIZATION

INFAL is formed by its member laboratories, government laboratories involved in food analysis in the countries of the region of the Americas formally appointed.  The INFAL is ruled by the bylaws, which organizes the network through: (1) Assembly, (2) Executive Committee, (3) Technical Groups (Microbiology, Chemical Analysis and Quality Management), the ex officio Secretariat, the Advisory Group and the National Networks. Also there is an INFAL’s operating procedure to facilitate member laboratories participation.

The Assembly is the highest authority and is integrated by all member laboratories.  The Assembly meets at least once every two years.  It is committed to: define INFAL strategies and priorities; appoint the Executive Committee members; choose Facilitators for each Technical Group; establish the number and areas of competence of the Technical Groups; evaluate the activities carried out by the Executive Committee, the Technical Groups, the ad hoc Groups and the ex officio Secretariat, and adopt the Plan of Action for the following two-year period.

The Executive Committee is formed by seven INFAL member laboratories from different countries.  Some of its commitments are: to act on behalf of the Assembly as its executive organ during the period between assemblies; to guarantee the execution of resolutions issued by the Assembly; to promote INFAL interaction with other organizations; to submit proposals to the Assembly for the plan of action of the following period; to make a follow-up of the Technical and the ad hoc Groups activities: to investigate and manage possible sources for funding INFAL operation; and to formalize agreements.

The Technical Groups are formed by all INFAL member laboratories with competence on issues relating to each group.  Among their tasks are the elaboration of specific technical criteria, to carry on its part of plan of action and giving direct advice through advisors.

The ex officio Secretariat is jointly exercised by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). EOS gives technical, financial and operational support for INFAL’s activities.

The National Networks disseminates the work performed at regional level to more laboratories at the level of each country.  So far, there are national laboratory networks associated to INFAL in Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Peru and Dominican Republic.

MAIN ACHIVEMENTS

INFAL has several tools that facilitate the interaction and the harmonization of the work among its 152 laboratories of the 29 countries.

Among the achievements fulfilled with PAHO cooperation, the following are worth mentioning:

1.    A bilingual webpage (in Spanish and English) including: 1) Information on INFAL history since its creation, 2) Documents, 3) Network structure, 4) Member laboratories, 5) Working groups, 6) On line bibliography, 7) National networks, 8) e-Learning, 9) Proficiency testing and Reference materials, 10) Information system, 11) Advisors DB, 12) Services & Products,  13) Groups management area and 14) News.  

2.    An Information System (SIRILAA) which includes detailed information of all INFAL´s member laboratories (i.e: personnel, analytical services, training offered, strengths and weaknesses, etc.).   

3.    An structure for collaborative working through E-mail Groups (RILAA News, RILAA SOS, INFAL SOS, RILAA Micro, RILAA QA and RILAA Chem), 2 CHAT rooms (where each Technical Group and Executive Committee meet every week), forums and virtual room (Elluminate) to carry on the biennial Action Plan.

4.    The e-Learning activities (through Internet “live” and “on demand”) to delivery training to member laboratories, according to needs evaluated by the technical groups and also for sharing success experiences.  So far 56 training courses and webinars have been carried out on different aspects of ISO/IEC 17025 Standard (its interpretation and implementation, uncertainty calculation, validation of methods, document control and auditing), about state of the art about reference materials, metrology, food safety laboratory management, security in chemical laboratories, microbiological criteria, sampling, etc. More than 20.000 participations have been delivered yet.

5.    Proficiency testing programs.  Every year a program for evaluating competence, -offered through different Institutions- is elaborated with the aim of adding confidence to food analysis results produced by INFAL´s member laboratories.

6.    Online bibliography. The web page includes a site with bibliographic open information and different links of interest for the member laboratories.

On the other hand, FAO during 2005-2006 has executed two sub regional projects for the "development of a comprehensive system for food analysis laboratories quality assurance", to 10 countries in South America (TCPRLA 3013 (A) and 9 countries of Central America, Mexico, Cuba, Panama and Dominican Republic (TCPRLA 3014 (A), respectively, that have trained 18 professionals by country and more than 200 at the regional level.

It is worth pointing out that have also collaborated with INFAL in specific activities - through the Advisory Group - GTZ, USFDA, USFSIS, IDB and Danish Co-operation Fund.

MAIN STRENGTHS

The INFAL member laboratories use networking, proficiency testing and e-learning to help themselves for improving the quality of their analytical results, in order to strengthen official control and surveillance programs and contributing to the food safety and to protect consumers’ health in a cost/effective way, both nationally and regionally.

It can be highlighted: (1) cooperation between members, which allows to carry out activities, so that laboratories with strengths to help with training/consultancy to another, who request it; (2) the INFAL’s advisors, eager professionals to cooperate with the INFAL in specific areas of solidarity and selfless manner; (3) services and products, a repository of training courses and documents developed by the network and the tools for the implementation of a management quality system according to the ISO 17025 Standard: (4) the checklists for management and technical requirements (microbiological and chemical laboratories), as well as (5) ISO 17025 orientation process.

IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES

v  Deployment of agreements for funding network activities.

v  Increase the participation at international forums on food analysis related issues (e.g.: Codex committees) and sub-regional common markets (i. e. MERCOSUR, CAN, SICA, etc.).

v  Strengthen coordination between laboratories and government programs for control and surveillance of food safety in the Americas

v  Increase the collaboration with English-speaking Caribbean countries.

EPILOG

INFAL is a co-operation mechanism established among government food analysis laboratories in the countries of the Americas´ region for strengthening the analytical capacities to support food safety, which contributes to protect consumers’ health and to facilitate international trade.

LINKS

Network Management at PAHO/WHO Brazil: concepts, practices, and lessons learned.
Section 2, pag. 81-91: “Horizontal Cooperation In the Networks: The INFAL Experience”, 2008

Video INFAL 15 years , 2012.