Food safety labs may not have capacity to handle a crisis like Japan’s

Thursday, April 14, 2011
By Paul Martin

By Aaron Mehta and Laurel Adams

As Japan struggles with a radiation emergency, the network of laboratories in charge of keeping nuclear contamination out of American food is under fire for being unprepared and understaffed.

The Department of Agriculture inspector general found that while the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has provided training, equipment, and established protocols for the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN), it has yet to implement it.

After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed a presidential directive to protect food supplies. FERN is the national laboratory network charged with responding to biological, chemical or radiological contamination of food—essentially the front line in making sure Americans’ food is safe to eat in case of an emergency.

The inspector general found that FERN cannot ensure laboratories within the network actually have the capacity to respond to emergencies. It has a cooperative agreement with 25 labs, but it also relies on another 95 labs as part of its network. It has not verified information about the capabilities of the 95 labs outside of the cooperative agreement.

The IG said three of the labs lack capabilities that the government is counting on. One laboratory was listed as being capable of testing for two types of bacteria, E. coli and Campylobacter, which it could not actually perform. The same lab said it was capable of testing 2,500 samples for salmonella, but under the required testing method, the lab was told it could only test for 150. Another lab wrongly stated that it could test for anthrax.

“There is little assurance that these laboratories will be able to assume testing responsibilities as needed,” the inspector general said. “If FSIS discovers during an emergency that laboratories lack their listed testing capabilities, the agency may lose valuable time finding a laboratory that can analyze a sample for a particular threat.”

Additionally, the report found that regional coordinating facilities were not being staffed adequately. Inspections of the facilities, located in in Jamaica, N.Y.; Athens, Ga.; St. Paul, Minn.; Denver, Colo.; and, Alameda, Calif., found that FSIS has only one employee each assigned to the Athens and St. Paul facilities.

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