Fri, Apr 10, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Private eyes in the grocery aisles

Several laboratory testing companies have sprung up in the US in recent years to test food for contamination, verify a product’s authenticity and determine if an item is organic. They help protect the public’s health, but their clients are suppliers, manufacturers and retailers wanting to protect their businesses

By Karen Stabiner  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Mountain People

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 is 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 is 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 is 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 US is US$14.1 billion to US$16.3 billion, according to a 2013 analysis by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). 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 more than 1,500 people at 116 labs in the US and Europe. He refers to his company, one of the largest of its kind in the country, as “a privately financed public health organization.”

DNA TESTS’ PROMISE

The two low-slung wooden buildings that house IEH’s labs at its base in Seattle, Washington, feel more like a high school chemistry lab than the center of a national food security network; there is 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 Escherichia 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.

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