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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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New Mexico State laboratory tests new technologies for finding food contaminants

A new laboratory at New Mexico State University will help the federal Food and Drug Administration find faster, more efficient methods of checking for contamination in food supplies and may help speed up the traffic at checkpoints on the U.S.- Mexico border, said Myles Culbertson, regional economic developer for the university's Physical Science Laboratory.



Willis Fedio, lead scientist at New Mexico State University's Food Microbiology Laboratory, rinses equipment behind a ventilated safety hood in the laboratory on the university campus. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Funded by a $1.5 million Congressional appropriation, the PSL's Food Microbiology Laboratory will evaluate new technologies that may be used by the FDA to detect such contaminants as Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus, said Willis Fedio, the laboratory's lead scientist.

"Since the early '90s we've recognized that there is a problem with perishable food products coming into the U.S. at our border checkpoints," said Culbertson, who was executive director of New Mexico's Border Authority from 1992 to 1995.

If a truckload of a food product coming into the United States is selected for inspection, a sample of the product is taken from the shipment and sent to an FDA lab in Colorado, Texas or Arkansas. The truck will not be allowed to unload the merchandise until tests are completed and the FDA approves the shipment, Culbertson explained.

"Naturally, if the shipment is something like cantaloupes or tomatoes a delay of several days can be very harmful. The FDA budget was earmarked by Congress for PSL to establish a regulatory laboratory closer to the border," he said.

"But the FDA explained that the problem isn't really the location of the laboratories, since samples and results can be shipped by express mail. The real problem is the FDA's laboratory technology, most of which is 30 to 40 years old. They said what was needed was a way to evaluate new, faster methods of testing samples, something the FDA doesn't have the time, money or manpower to do," he added.

Congress agreed with that approach and the PSL Food Microbiology Laboratory initiative was launched, Culbertson said.

At New Mexico State, the laboratory will evaluate commercially developed rapid test kits and biological sensors, using traditional culture-based methods as a constant. It also will work on ways to make the technologies work on a variety of samples and under a variety of conditions, Fedio said.

"If we can reduce the time it takes to complete the tests in the FDA labs it will have the additional benefit of allowing them to test a higher percentage of the shipments that cross U.S. borders. Another angle is to make it so the guy at the border crossing can do these tests, speeding up the process that way," he explained.

Besides evaluating the new technologies and helping the FDA streamline its processes in high-traffic laboratories, the Food Technology Evaluation Laboratory will provide food safety training and technical support for private companies doing food processing, Fedio said.

Photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/fedio_willis.jpg.
CUTLINE: Willis Fedio, lead scientist at New Mexico State University's Food Microbiology Laboratory, rinses equipment behind a ventilated safety hood in the laboratory on the university campus. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Jack King
Aug. 6, 2002