FDA's Food Safety Scientists: Hands-On Experience, Up-to-the-Minute Expertise

By Young, Frank E. | FDA Consumer, September 1988 | Go to article overview

FDA's Food Safety Scientists: Hands-On Experience, Up-to-the-Minute Expertise


Young, Frank E., FDA Consumer


FDA's Food Safety Scientists: Hands-On Experience, Up-to-the-Minute Expertise

When your car needs repair, you want a mechanic familiar with the latest automotive technology. When your house needs selling, you want an agent who knows the real estate market. And when your child needs medical attention, you want a physician who has done more than look at books. You want one who knows what it means to stand at a patient's bedside. In each case you want a person with experience: an expert active and recognized among colleagues, knowledgeable about developments in his or her field.

In judging food safety, experience is especially critical. When FDA needs to evaluate complex data, we want experts who know more than theory. We want scientists who understand the realities and uncertainties behind experimental data, because they know what it means to work in the field or stand at a laboratory bench where data originate. That's why a vigorous research program is so important to us at FDA. Research is the means by which our scientists hone their skills to identify, understand and prevent health problems. And that's why FDA maintains a solid base of expertise in the analytical sciences so fundamental to addressing food safety issues.

Just last year, a tragic incident in Guatemala underscored the tremendous importance of hands-on experience in addressing food safety. There, after the noon meal on July 30 in Champerico--a small community on the Pacific coast--a sudden mysterious illness struck, killing 26 villagers during the next two days. Those who became sick--about 185, in all--had eaten small, seasonal clams called almejas. The victims suffered weakness, paralysis, and difficulty breathing. Because there was no past history of these symptoms being associated with seafood in Guatemala, pesticides were suspected as the cause of the problem.

On Aug. 3, the Guatemalan government requested U.S. assistance in dealing with the incident. By then, their health workers had analyzed food and patient blood samples only to find no signs of pesticide poisoning. Instead, they discovered high levels of paralytic shellfish toxins in the almejas and in soup eaten by victims. In response, FDA dispatched Dr. Sherwood Hall, a laboratory expert in seafood toxins, to Guatemala City. He arrived on Aug. 4 and quickly agreed that the marine toxins, rather than pesticides, were the No. 1 suspect as the source of the baffling incident.

Dr. Hall immediately shipped a sample of the poisonous clams back to FDA's Washington, D.C., laboratories for analysis and then traveled to Champerico with Guatemala's chief epidemiologist to identify the microscopic sea creatures--known as dinoflagellates--that produced the toxin in the clams. With the incident now understood, the Guatemalan government--assisted by Dr. Hall--rapidly developed a monitoring plan to avert future disasters, and on Aug. 12 Dr. Hall returned to his Washington laboratory.

Because of the quick action by the Guatemalan officials and the direct experience of an FDA scientist, attention promptly focused on the real, rather than the perceived, cause of a very serious public health problem. FDA was pleased to extend a helping hand to a neighbor, but the moral of this story goes much farther. This incident highlights the concept that food safety involves more than the effects of discrete, man-made chemicals on human health. Today it involves understanding the many relationships--both good and bad--among nutrition, natural and man-made toxic agents, human genetics, and microbial hazards. Each influences the other, and scientific understanding of these influences based in solid research is needed for sound regulatory policies. Food safety is dynamic, changing with technology, natural conditions, and the globalization of the food supply.

Recognition of these facts led Dr. Hall to public service and an exciting research program at FDA. …

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