Mansour Samadpour makes his way through the supermarket like a detective working a crime scene, slow, watchful, up one aisle and down the next. A clerk mistakenly assumes that he needs help, but Samadpour brushes him off. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
He buys organic raspberries that might test positive for pesticides and a fillet of wild-caught fish that might be neither wild nor the species listed on the label. He buys beef and pork ground fresh at the market. He is disappointed that there is no caviar, which might turn out to be something cheaper than sturgeon roe. That’s an easy case to crack.
Civilian shoppers see food when they go to the market. Samadpour, the chief executive of IEH Laboratories (short for Institute for Environmental Health), sees mystery, if not downright fraud. On this visit, he is shopping for goods he can test at his labs to demonstrate to a reporter that what you see on market shelves may not be what you get.
While he’s out of the office, he receives a call and dispatches a team on a more pressing expedition: They need to buy various products that contain cumin, because a client just found possible evidence of peanuts, a powerful allergen, in a cumin-based spice mix. The client wants a definitive answer before someone gets sick.
Suppliers, manufacturers and markets depend on Samadpour’s network of labs to test food for inadvertent contamination and deliberate fraud, or to verify if a product is organic or free of genetically modified organisms. Consumers, the last link in the chain, bet their very health on responsible practices along the way.
The annual cost of food-borne illnesses in the United States is $14.1 billion to $16.3 billion, according to a 2013 analysis by the U.S. Agriculture Department. The federal government has called for a shift from reaction, which usually means a large recall after people have fallen ill or died, to prevention, to reduce the number of such episodes. Wary customers want their food to be safe and genuine, and food retailers, who rely on a global array of suppliers, are looking for ways to protect their brands.
Food testing sits at the intersection of those desires. Samadpour, who opened IEH’s first lab in 2001 with six employees, now employs over 1,500 people at 116 labs in the United States and Europe. He refers to his company, one of the largest of its kind in the country, as “a privately financed public health organization.”
The two low-slung wooden buildings that house IEH’s labs at its base in Seattle feel more like a high school chemistry lab than the center of a national food security network; there’s an acrid smell, and the counters are crammed with vials of various shapes and colors, centrifuge machines and lined notebooks full of data entries.
This is where analysts coax DNA out of a tiny sample of whatever is being tested. For lethal threats, like E. coli 1057 in ground beef, the detection process involves a grim recipe of ground beef and a broth infused with nutrients that E. coli likes to eat, put in a warm place to rest for 10 hours -- at which point a single E. coli cell, if it exists, will have spawned 1 million easy-to-detect siblings. For fraud cases, the process is somewhat simpler; lab technicians run a DNA test or chemical analysis to confirm a sample’s identity.
IEH’s clients are primarily vendors who supply retailers and manufacturers, and they generally prefer to remain anonymous for fear of indicating to consumers that they have a specific worry about safety.
Costco is one of the retailers that use IEH’s services, and the company doesn’t mind talking about it.
“We have to inspect what we expect,” says Craig Wilson, the company’s vice president for quality assurance and food safety, meaning that products have to live up to their labels, particularly items in Costco’s own Kirkland Signature line.
After a 2006 outbreak of E. coli tied to Earthbound Farm’s ready-to-eat bagged spinach, in which three people died and more than 200 became ill, Wilson, one of Earthbound’s customers, instituted what he calls a “bag and hold” program for all of Costco’s fresh greens suppliers. He required the suppliers to test their produce and not ship it until they had the results of the tests.
Earthbound responded to the outbreak with a “multihurdle program that places as many barriers to food-borne illness as we can,” says Gary Thomas, the company’s senior vice president for integrated supply chain. Earthbound now conducts 200,000 tests annually on its ready-to-eat greens.
Not everyone was as quick to embrace change; some growers were concerned about losing shelf life while they waited for results. Wilson was unmoved by that argument.
“If you can test and verify microbial safety, what do I care if I lose shelf life?” he says.
The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, intended to improve food safety practices, has been mired in missed deadlines, which have been attributed to food-industry concerns about overregulation and to an unrealistic timeline given the scope of the overhaul. The delays led to a lawsuit by the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health, two advocacy groups. The Food and Drug Administration and the Office of Management and Budget now operate under a court-ordered schedule that requires regulations to be issued in late 2015 and 2016.
The FDA currently stops short of requiring produce tests, although it conducts its own “surveillance sampling,” according to Juli Putnam, an agency spokeswoman. The agency sees two drawbacks to mandatory tests: “A negative product test result does not necessarily indicate the absence of a hazard,” Putnam wrote in an email, because contamination might show up in another part of a field, and conducting more tests would increase the costs that are passed on to the consumer.
The agency is focused instead on defining minimum safety standards for “potential sources of microbiological contamination such as agricultural water, worker health and hygiene and animals in the growing area,” she wrote (though some preventive testing is conducted on sprouts).
Wilson says he uses government guidelines “as a minimum standard, and I always try to go above and beyond that.”
DNATrek, a newcomer to the field, sees opportunity in another aspect of food safety testing: the need to quickly pinpoint the source of a pathogen outbreak, to avoid delays and unnecessarily broad recalls. Anthony Zografos, the company’s chief executive, says it soon plans to introduce a test called DNATrax, which will be able to identify the source of contaminated produce within an hour, narrowing recall efforts “to a specific field or packer or distributor.” The test relies on tracer DNA that is dissolved in the liquid coating applied to many types of produce after harvest or added to prepared foods; it provides a unique genetic fingerprint.
George Farquar, a chemist and Zografos’ partner in the company, was looking for ways to trace airborne contaminants as part of a national security project financed by the Defense Department when he realized that the work could be applied to food safety. He and Zografos licensed the technology from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he was conducting the research, and it will receive royalties from sales of the test. Zografos says that DNATrax will offer traceability for most types of field produce at a price of about $1 for 1,000 pounds.
As with most expanding technologies, there are believers and skeptics. David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at the 111-year-old United Fresh Produce Association, echoes the position of the FDA: Testing is not a sufficient answer for his members, who include anyone engaged in the fresh produce industry, “from guys who come up with seeds to growers, shippers, fresh-cut processors, restaurants and grocery stores, everyone from beginning to end,” from small organic farms to Monsanto.
Their common ground, he says, is a commitment to food safety – but members disagree on how to achieve it, including Gombas and Samadpour, who are both microbiologists.
“Microbiological testing provides a false sense of security,” Gombas says. “They can find one dead salmonella cell on a watermelon, but what does that tell you about the rest of the watermelon in the field? Nothing.”
Testing has its place, he says, but as backup for “good practices and environmental monitoring,” which includes things as diverse as employee hygiene and site visits. “I’m a fan of testing,” he says, “if something funny’s going on.” Otherwise, he has taken on the role of contrarian. “People think testing means something. When I say it doesn’t, they smile, nod and keep testing.”
Samadpour says sampling “can reduce the risk tremendously but can never 100 percent eliminate it,” but he will take a tremendous reduction over a food crisis any day. The government’s “indirect” stance, which mandates safety but does not require testing, allows companies to interpret safe practices on “a spectrum,” he says, “from bare minimum to sophisticated programs,” and he worries about safety at the low end of that range.
He says consumer vigilance is the best defense against the selling of groceries under bare minimum standards.