Mobile food-safety labs get FDA up to speed

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By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

NOGALES, 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.

VIDEO: 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 past."

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," Cathey says.

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.





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