Weise, USA TODAY
Ariz. — The FDA has hit the road.
A month ago, three gleaming white trailers — the Food and Drug
Administration's $3 million mobile food-safety lab — rolled into this major
port of entry for people and goods coming from Mexico. They joined an
alphabet soup of federal agencies sifting through millions of tons of goods
in search of drugs, guns, invasive plants and tainted foods.
See how $3
million lab works
The lab represents a new era for the agency in keeping the
food supply safe, says Michael Chappell, FDA acting associate commissioner
for regulatory affairs. It is a tool that can be suited up and rolled out
to anyplace in the country facing the danger of contaminated food, whether
at the hand of terrorists or Mother Nature.
"The labs bring our cutting-edge technology closer to
where food is grown or imported into the country," says Chappell, who
oversees all of the FDA's inspectors. "Tools like our mobile labs help
make our food supply safer by allowing us to identify a potential problem
faster, enabling us to react more quickly and limiting exposure to a
food-borne pathogen that may make people sick."
In the three weeks the trailers were based in Nogales before
heading to their next assignment, the FDA estimates that direct contact
with the truckers shaved tens of thousands of dollars in testing costs and
spoiled produce. The mobile unit also may help repair the agency's
reputation, which has been battered by public frustration with the contamination
of such popular foods as peanuts and spinach.
Jim Cathey, general manager for Del Campo Supreme, a grower
and shipper based in Nogales and Mexico, says he has seen firsthand that
"everything is changing" at the FDA. Cathey, a former FDA
inspector, says agents "seem to be very aggressively trying to do a
much better job and be more on top of things than they have in the
The danger factor
In dry Nogales, the wind whips through the valley, setting
flags and grit flying. There is palpable tension in the air as agents under
the protection of armed guards examine cargo. The BlackBerrys senior
Customs and Border Protection agents wear on their belts buzz constantly.
Several times a day the message is something that makes them look up and
around with a practiced eye.
Gun battles with would-be smugglers are rare, but they do
happen, says Chief Tracy Encinas, an agricultural specialist with Customs.
It is violence, in fact, that's keeping the FDA on this side of the border.
Mounting drug violence in Mexico makes it too dangerous to send
agricultural agents into the countryside.
In this setting, the scientists inside the mobile lab refer to
their time as a deployment. They train hard on quick response. The lab is
designed to handle biohazards as deadly as anthrax and the West Nile virus.
If a terrorist attack on the nation's food supply were even to be
suspected, "we can break down and be on the road in six hours,"
says FDA microbiologist Rick Crouch.
The lab was built in 2005. Its deployments have included
Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina to test water. And last August,
scientists drove to California's Salinas Valley to test leafy greens in an
effort to head off a recurrence of the E. coli outbreak in spinach in 2006.
Trucks full of produce
Seventy percent of the fruits and vegetables Americans consume
in winter are imported from Mexico, a total of 7 billion pounds, says
Allison Moore, communications director for the Nogales-based Fresh Produce
Association of the Americas. About half comes through Nogales.
The road that leads to the border begins to fill with trucks
carrying fruits, vegetables and manufactured goods at 6:30 a.m. By noon
there can be a line of trucks up to 7 miles long snaking through the low
desert hills waiting to make the crossing.
Manuel Ramirez and Alfonzo Obregon are about a quarter-mile
from the border, waiting in their semi. "We usually wait between three
and four hours to cross," Obergon says. His load of watermelons was
harvested in La Costa that morning.
Chris Ciruli of Ciruli Brothers in Nogales says his peppers
and tomatoes come from the Mexican state of Sonora. A truck drives all
night to arrive at the border the next morning. Each trucker carrying food
has submitted an electronic manifest at least two hours before arriving
because of rules put into place by the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. At the
border, each truck is given a quick visual inspection. A random number are
X-rayed for contraband.
The FDA uses a computer system called OASIS (Operational and
Administrative System for Import Support), which randomly assigns trucks to
be inspected based on a number of variables. It includes previous positive
tests for salmonella and E. coli.
The FDA also does "targeted inspections." Inspectors
looking for salmonella have, at various times, pulled over all trucks
carrying such foods as peppers, summer squash and tomatoes, says Adrian
Garcia, the FDA's supervisory investigator for the Southwest Import
District. The trucks pulled over are inventoried and unloaded at one of
about 25 refrigerated warehouses around town.
Usually, this work would all be done by the 13 FDA inspectors
permanently assigned to Nogales, who ship samples to one of the FDA's 13
labs. But the process can take up to 11 days, Ciruli says.
Produce that's "red-tagged" as potentially positive
for salmonella or E. coli can be shipped or impounded at the warehouse, but
it cannot be put on the market until FDA test results come back negative.
"There was a lot of stuff that we had to destroy because it got too
old on the FDA hold," he says.
High — and low — tech
The mobile labs are testing for the two bacteria behind the
lion's share of major outbreaks over the past decade — salmonella, recently
found in pistachios and peanut butter, and E. coli O157:H7, which has
turned up in ground beef, spinach and lettuce.
The command vehicle is a modified 34-foot motor home, filled
with laptop-covered desks. At the back is the labeling area, where
microbiologists log in samples. The Sample Preparation Lab is a 44-foot,
22,000-pound, custom-built trailer. Its twin is the Sample Analysis, where
the actual testing takes place. The trailers fishtail "like a
whale" in the wind when they're driven, says Crouch, who helped drive
them down from their home base in Arkansas. Nogales gets heavy winds, and
the walls of the trailers shake throughout the day.
The equipment is state of the art, but space and budget keep
some things primitive. Even in a high school lab, sample mixing usually
would be done by a mechanical shaking unit. Here it's done by
microbiologist Santos Camara, who takes a gray plastic tub full of plastic
bags containing produce samples and rinse solution and scoots them back and
forth across the stainless steel counter for five minutes. "It builds
up my arms," he jokes.
The rest of the crewmembers cheerfully step around one another
to get to their work stations. They enjoy the camaraderie. But the
importance of what they're doing doesn't get lost, Crouch says. "When
we get a positive, I feel like we maybe stopped an outbreak."
No news is good news
In the three weeks the lab was parked at Nogales, not one
positive test turned up. "That's good. That shows that the people
shipping to us are aware that we're testing and they're being
diligent," Crouch says.
And for a $30,000 load of red, orange and yellow peppers
picked last week in the Mexican state of Sinaloa near Mazatlan, the FDA
hold-and-test time was just short of 36 hours, thanks to the mobile lab.
That marks a huge improvement over the week it could have taken, says
Cathey of Del Campo Supreme. Even a few days' wait could cut the peppers'
value by thousands of dollars.
This lab came to Nogales at the request of the Fresh Produce
Association of the Americas. "We requested that it come down here and
take a look at what we're doing and see if we could speed things up,"
And the growers are hopeful that the lab will return to
Nogales at peak growing times.
But not everyone is on board. The mobile labs are just "a
Band-Aid" says Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. "It's going to take
more than a network of mobile labs to reform the FDA."
For now, the lab is headed back to the Salinas Valley, called
"the salad bowl to the world," where much of the nation's lettuce
will come from this summer.