By most accounts, the Food and Drug Administration’s mobile food-safety testing labs accomplished what they set out to during a three-week stay in April in Nogales, Ariz., and there are plans to return.
The only thing that could’ve been improved upon was the timing.
“Obviously, we’re in favor of any technology that will give us faster response time,” said Chris Ciruli, chief operating officer of Nogales-based Ciruli Bros. “But it came late in our season and was testing a high ratio (of product).
“We would love to see a return at peak season, when there’s a high volume.”
That could happen early next year, when much of the seven billion pounds of fresh produce crosses the border from Mexico to the U.S. — which is 70% of the fruits and vegetables Americans consume over the winter, said Allison Moore, communications director for the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. It was the first stop at this prime southern border crossing area for the FDA’s $3 million mobile food-safety lab, a convoy of modified motor homes and custom built trailers that house computers, sampling and testing areas and equipment.
“There’s no question the mobile lab will return,” said George Strait, assistant commissioner for public affairs for the FDA. “We like to go where we can do the most good. Seeing how such a large percentage of product and goods from Mexico come into the country from there, it only makes sense.”
The lab was built in 2005 and has been deployed to Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina to test water, and to California’s Salinas Valley in August to test leafy greens for E. coli. The lab returns to Salinas for a month in late July, said Todd Bozicevich, laboratory operations branch director of the FDA's division of field science.
FDA tested about 30 samples per day, Moore said, focusing on bell peppers, squash and a few leafy greens, because those were the major commodities crossing.
The FDA uses a computer system called OASIS (Operational and Administrative System for Import Support), which randomly assigns truck shipments to be inspected.
Inspectors took samples from a lot on selected trucks. Those trucks then went to a warehouse, where lots were unloaded and put on hold until test results came back and were certified clean.
“They were aiming for 36 hours,” Moore said. “It seemed like it took a little longer. But it probably knocked off two days processing time, which definitely is a big benefit. Instead of having to throw away an entire lot of product because testing took too long … .