University of Maryland to open food safety training lab

Foreign food exporters to learn science behind safe food production

May 28, 2010|By Kelly Brewington, The Baltimore Sun

The United States imports most of its produce and seafood, but federal regulators manage to inspect just 1 percent of imported food.

Amid growing concerns about food-borne illnesses and American's increasing appetite for imports, the University of Maryland, the Food and Drug Administration and a Massachusetts technology company have launched what is being called the first U.S.-based laboratory to train foreign food exporters on the science behind safe food production.

"Instead of relying on inspection at the border, which is simply impossible to do, we want to go to the source," said Paul Mazzocchi, associate director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the University of Maryland, College Park. The institute, a partnership with the FDA since 1996, will oversee the initiative, expected to launch in July 2011.

For years, the institute has sent trainers abroad — mostly to South America and Asia — to educate food producers on safe farming protocols, fishing practices and overall hygiene. The new program will expand on that effort by bringing food producers to the university for scientific training on food safety. With a $4 million gift of state-of-the-art lab equipment from the Waters Corp. of Milford, Mass, the university will open a facility known as the International Food Safety Training Laboratory.

The program aims to train 200 foreign food producers a year in how to analyze food for chemical pesticides, drugs and pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella, said Mazzocchi. Participants will pay tuition for the training, though that fee has yet to be determined.

The U.S. imports about 15 percent of its food, but much of it is "high value food" said Mazzocchi, such as exotic fruits and seafood. About 60 percent of produce is imported and 80 percent of seafood, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Shrimp alone is a huge import and is expected to grow with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Mazzocchi said.

In addition, the volume of imports that Americans eat increased 29 percent from 2003 to 2008, and the value of the products increased by 65 percent.

But the FDA does not have the resources to inspect all that comes across the border, Mazzocchi said. While the agency screens all imports electronically, it personally inspects just 1 percent of them, said Rita Chappelle, an FDA spokeswoman.

In a global economy, it is necessary to work with countries on the front end to help build the techniques to protect the nation's food supply, she said.

Inspecting every marine container or every truck is impractical and cost-prohibitive, said Trevor Suslow, an expert on food safety at the University of California at Davis. And when dealing with fruits and vegetables, which are quick to perish, inspection can mean expensive delays.

Even when inspections are done, a lot can get glossed over, he said.

"With the majority of contamination with pathogens, the food can look pristine, it can look clean, it can look perfect, but there is a level of contamination that can make an adult ill," said Suslow, who has trained exporters in Peru through the University of Maryland institute. "Understand, that often we are fighting an invisible enemy."

That is why education at the source of food production is vital.

"It takes time to understand how contaminants can get into your crop, into your water, onto your hands," he said. "It's much better to work to ensure that the preventive program is in place."

Food regulators and manufacturers abroad have been clamoring for the kind of scientific training the institute plans to offer, said Jeffrey Tarmy, a spokesman for Waters.

"They want to better understand our standards so that when they export to us, their food is already prescreened."

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