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Latest food-safety effort starts with mashed potatoes

Jul. 8, 2014 - 06:09PM   |  
No joke: The Army has used gobs of mashed potatoes in seeking better detection methods for foodborne pathogens.
No joke: The Army has used gobs of mashed potatoes in seeking better detection methods for foodborne pathogens. (Army)
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What began as a line of defense against biological warfare has been unleashed on unsuspecting victims in an Army laboratory — 150 mashed potatoes, to be exact.

The result could speed up the Army’s food-testing process, and even help save lives in the event of an outbreak caused by a foodborne pathogen. Which brings us back to the potatoes: 75 of them were infected with salmonella for a recent test, and researchers at the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center found all of them using a Mass Spectrometry Proteomics Method.

Tests that try to grow cultures of suspected pathogens to determine their presence take at least three days, said Mary Wade, head of ECBC’s Point Detection Branch — sometimes up to a month. Spectrometry takes four hours, at most. The test itself, after the questionable foodstuff is prepped for examination, takes minutes.

And unlike other methods that focus on a particular suspected toxin, this one can target any invader that’s been “genomically sequenced,” Wade said, including thousands of types of bacteria and viruses, even fungi and parasites.

The project began as a way to gauge environmental samples — air, water, even blood — for exposure to bacteria, Wade said. That was before the Army’s Public Health Command expressed interest.

“We were not, at the time, necessarily doing food work,” Wade said. “Some stuff with lettuce.”

Initial tests on spuds, a favored subject because of its consistency, showed promise four or five years ago, she said. That eventually led to the larger-scale potato testing, and the recent test led to further program expansion, according to a June 9 ECBC release, including sending the MSPM equipment to Camp Zama, Japan.

Statistics for foodborne illnesses are kept at the Defense Department level, a spokeswoman for PHC said: According to DoD figures, more than 2,700 service members came down with salmonellosis from 2002-2012, and more than 12,300 suffered from “other bacterial food poisoning.”

Tracking such illnesses isn’t an exact science — many service members likely wouldn’t report mild symptoms of food poisoning, and those who do report stomach or intestinal problems are grouped in categories that may or may not involve foodborne pathogens. More than 61,000 troops had “ill-defined intestinal infections” from 2002-12, DoD data show, and almost 380,000 reported suffering from diarrhea.

Next steps, after spuds

Ongoing tests will expand the target from salmonella to all toxins, and future tests will move beyond starchy side dishes.

“We’re looking at milk and eggs, but also meat,” Wade said. “Nonuniform samples, like sandwiches. We’ve been batting around which to go to next.”

ECBC researchers won’t determine exactly how the technology is used when it reaches the PHC or any other Army command, but there are promising applications:

■ Should soldiers begin suffering ill effects from tainted food, tests could determine what triggered the illness and help dictate medical care. For example, different strains of E. coli bacteria require different treatments, some with unpleasant side effects. Knowing the right strain in rapid fashion would help limit illnesses.

■ The MSPM can review false positives recorded by hand-held food-testing devices, a process that could end up improving the front-line systems.

When one machine picks up a toxin, the test is redone twice; if no toxin shows up on either of those screenings, it’s considered a false positive. The further review by MSPM may allow researchers to determine what substance triggered the false reading and better calibrate the smaller devices.

■ Researchers want to shrink and simplify the technology for use in the field, allowing soldiers to test biological threats. These would likely screen for airborne toxins rather than food-based materials, Wade said, since prepping food for spectrometry would require advanced lab equipment (potatoes get put in the centrifuge, for example).

Wade and the team are also, at this point, sick of mashed potatoes.

“We’re ready to move on to something else,” she said.

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