Food Safety Research Center Offers Taste of the Future

Article excerpt

At the new National Center for Food Safety and Technology (NCFST) in Bedford Park, Ill., food scientists from the Food and Drug Administration are getting a taste of things to come.

Replete with renovated laboratories, some new laboratory equipment and supplies, and lots of work space, 33 FDA scientists and other staff members are studying how upand-coming food processing and packaging technologies may affect food safety.

Since the establishment of the collaborative research program in late 1990, the scientists have been studying emerging food issues that include recycled plastic food containers, computerization of food processing systems, shelf-life extension of food, and use of biotechnology-derived tools for detecting contaminants in food.

Their ultimate goal: to enhance the safety and quality of food products.

The research at the center is made possible through the center's unique consortium of government, industry and academia devoted to cooperative food safety research on food biotechnology and food processing and packaging technologies.

In addition to FDA, the center is supported by the Illinois Institute of Technology, the IIT Research Institute, the University of Illinois, and 38 food-related companies. (See accompanying box.) FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition oversees the agency's role in NCFST.

According to FDA Commissioner David Kessler, M.D., the center helps FDA carry out two of its food-related missions: to serve as a leader in food safety and to foster innovation.

"If we haven't done some of the work ourselves, if we haven't been there scientifically, it will be all too easy for FDA to say no' to new advances as they come in for review," he said.

He also noted that while NCFST participants will benefit from the center's research, the ultimate beneficiary is the consumer. "This is as it should be," he said.

The benefits, explained NCFST director Richard Lechowich, Ph.D., include more than just a safe food supply; consumers also will have food that is nutritious, tastes good, and is economically produced. "That's what consumers are interested in," he said.

Why a National Food Center?

According to Lechowich, the center was created so that government, academia, and the food industry would have a common ground on which to meet and share new food technologies. In doing so, he said, they can help ensure that the benefits of those new technologies get to the consumer as quickly as possible. [Here], government, academia and industry can work together to solve problems," he said.

The center's development also was prompted by the increasing use of new food processes and packaging technologies; the use of new ingredients produced through biotechnology; and the growing use of ingredient replacements for sugars, fats, proteins, and other nutrients, said FDA'a David Armstrong, Ph.D., NCFST's associate director for research.

"These new foods and processes raise new questions about the safety and nutritive value of these products," he said. "That's precisely why the NCFST's research is so necessary."

Increased competition from foreign markets was another incentive for creating NCFST, Lechowich said. He noted that the constant mergers and consolidations in the food industry often interfere with companies' ability to carry out long-term research. As a result, the United States may fall behind other countries in advanced technologies and thus lose its ability to compete worldwide, he said.

The center hopes to take its research one step further: It plans to use its studies as the basis on which future food safety and food regulatory decisions in this country are made.

"The real proof of NCFST's success will be the research that is generated there and the national policy that the research helps set," said Robert McVicker, a senior vice president for Kraft General Foods and chairman of the center's oversight committee. …