Mobile food-safety labs get FDA up to speed

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.

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

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