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 … .
“That was one of the big reasons for (the FPAA) asking the FDA to bring the labs down here.”
The labs were stationed at the border, at a customs compound, where the FDA has a permanent office.
“There were sort of three things going on (with the mobile labs in Nogales),” Strait said. “One, if you’re a grower and you know that the regulatory authority on the other side of the border is paying attention, you’re going to be as thorough as you can in making sure you’re following good farming practices.
“The second thing is prevention. It protects the public. Third, if you’re a distributor or wholesaler, and say you distribute to Wal-Mart or Kroger, anything that speeds the process is good for business. The extent to which we can speed the process saves the industry a lot of money and, in the long run, saves consumers money.”
While inspectors tested mostly for salmonella and E. coli, they also tested for pesticides and microbial organisms, said Jim Cathey, general manger for Nogales-based Del Campo Supreme and a former FDA inspector.
“They seemed to work very well,” Cathey said. “What was nice was having them finished at the end of the day instead of the five- or six-day wait we used to have. We’re not used to being sampled at that level, but we know now what that process could be should they build a permanent facility.
During the three weeks the mobile labs were in Nogales, there was not a positive test.
“That was, for us, great news,” Moore said. “It’s another verification that our growers are using all their good agricultural practices and following all the food-safety measures. It’s another important link in the chain that we continue to do everything we can with the science that’s available to make sure our products are safe for consumers.”
Now, if only the FDA can get its timing down better.
“The best news was that everything was safe, and there were no problems found,” Ciruli said. “But, we would love to see that during peak season, during high volumes. December through January is when we think they should be here.”