Analytical Laboratories & Technical Services Australia’s (ALTSA) Merbein South facility is going from strength-to-strength, with the company recently commissioning a new microbiology and molecular biology laboratory.

ALTSA general manager Ray Harris said: “This new laboratory enables us to conduct state of the art DNA testing to detect microbes in food, water, soil and plants and so we are delighted that this laboratory is now up and running.”

“With these tests now available in addition to pesticide (MRLs) and heavy metals, we can offer local growers of fresh produce the complete range of tests required for them to sell into domestic and export markets,” Mr Harris said.

“And when you add to that our existing soil and plant nutrition testing capability, that’s a far more comprehensive offering than competitor labs in capital cities, so we now consider our facility a one stop local service for growers and food and beverage processors/manufacturers with turnaround times for all testing being only days, not weeks.

“Of course, it’s also far more convenient and time saving to have a locally based lab facility that customers can just drop off samples to, rather than having to pack and freight samples to a far-off multinational capital city lab and hoping the samples don’t go missing or deteriorate along the way.”

Mr Harris said that another benefit of being able to offer microbiology testing is that ALTSA can test drinking water, including domestic water in homes and businesses generally, as well as pool water.

“We can test for the presence of microbes like E.coli, coliforms and other micro-organisms (which can cause gastroenteritis), heavy metals and blue green algae toxins in drinking water,” he said.

“Heavy metals can be sourced from plumbing itself and can be associated with causing brain damage and reproductive difficulties – even a new tap or water filter could be a source of heavy metals as a result of leaching and corrosion.

“And as we know the threat of blue green algae seems to be an ongoing risk nowadays. We have already tested water for a lot of local mums who just want to be sure that the water their family is drinking is safe for consumption. Is my water safe? − Well, you really don’t know unless you test it.

“So whether you have children or employees there is an obligation that you look after everybody who is drinking that water and ideally test that water regularly to confirm it is safe.”

Mr Harris stressed that the integrity of Mildura’s urban water supply is beyond reproach.

“It’s what happens to it after it reaches your home that can be a concern” he said.

“If you’re on a remote property, and you rely on let’s say, rainwater from a tank, or water from a channel or river, maybe you’re putting it through your own treatment facility – it’s even more important that you should get it tested occasionally to check it is safe,” he said.

Mr Harris said the ALTSA facility is NATA accredited, which is the highest quality recognition that a laboratory facility can achieve.

“Early this year we were also formally recognised by the Japanese government to test pesticides (MRLs) for grapes being shipped into Japan,” he said.

“All of this means that our customers can have confidence in the accuracy and reliability of our tests and that we can provide testing for growers seeking accreditations with Freshcare, Global GAP and HARPS which are required for the selling of fresh food products domestically or internationally.

“We see ourselves as being partners with all agricultural industries and we are gradually working to service every sector of the industry.

“For growers in particular, we believe we have a better feel than our capital city competitors for what’s needed because we are literally on the ground here and we can directly interact with and get a lot of feedback from growers.

“That is a big advantage for us and of course benefits their industry as a whole.

“We are approachable, we aren’t just some voice at the end of a phone in a capital city and if by chance there is a test that ALTSA can’t do here currently, we will go out of our way to find a means to make it happen in most cases.”

Mr Harris said that ALTSA is also more than a laboratory − they are a resource.

“We are a resource for local industry that operates in the Sunraysia and Mallee and indeed across Australia,” he said.

“We can provide advice and consultancy, particularly in regard to legal compliance.

“For example with pesticides, we have set up a comprehensive database which details the maximum residue levels (MRLs) for any country to which a grower may be exporting to.

“With our colour-coded MRL reporting system we make it easy for growers to check for MRL compliance. And we can offer not just a full comprehensive scan but a targeted scan for a particular pesticide or pesticides.”

Mr Harris said that another example of ALTSA being a resource was that they had provided a free service to growers this year to check their refractometers are reading accurately.

“Growers use refractometers to test the sugar level – sweetness of the grapes – so it is important that the equipment they are using onsite is giving them an accurate indication of when is the best time to pick,” he said.

Mr Harris added that ALTSA is also planning to introduce environmental testing, legionella testing, asbestos testing, and now offer home gardener testing.

“People might have a garden vegetable patch that isn’t doing too well so we can provide tests on their soil and maybe their tomato plants for example, and we can show them very simply using the same colour coded reports as major growers receive, what nutrients are deficient, balanced or excessive in their soil or plants,” he said.

“That’s a service which up until now, hasn’t really been available in the district. There isn’t any reason that our services can’t apply to someone’s backyard, just as it does to a large-scale grape, citrus or almond operation.”

Mr Harris added that ALTSA is also looking forward to the resumption of their school science student tour programs that they had operated prior to COVID shutting things down.

“The schools really appreciated having the opportunity for their science students to get a feel for what a job in science involves,” he said.

“We are planning to establish a science museum, which will acknowledge the past horticultural research history of this site and we hope to include some student facilities within it that can be used in support of STEM programs in schools (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“Importantly, we are here to meet a need in our community that has been lacking for too long, and we are only going to continue to grow and employ more people because we are needed.”