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Food world's version of 'CSI'

When people get ill or something unexpected is found in a can, this team is called in to solve the mystery.

May 26, 2008|Annys Shin | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — It wasn't normal for a service at Calvary Baptist Church to end with a 911 call.

Then again, the burning sensation parishioners felt as they sipped their communion grape juice wasn't normal, either.

"As soon as we drank it, we knew something was wrong," said the Rev. Anthony Gibson, the pastor of the church in Darien, Conn.

The congregants called the police. The police called the grape juice company. And the grape juice company called a team of forensic scientists that specializes in fishing clues from fillets and prying confessions from tomato cans.

The 22 chemists, microbiologists and food science experts work for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a Washington trade group that represents food companies such as Kraft Foods Inc., Campbell Soup Co. and General Mills Inc.

GMA's members turn to the group's in-house forensics experts when they receive a complaint about an eyelash in a pot pie or a bug in a can of stew. The team of scientists, led by lab director Jeffrey Barach and GMA senior counsel David Herman, are tasked with figuring out whether the company is dealing with a prank, an innocent mistake, a production error or sabotage.

"It really is like 'CSI' trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together," Herman said, referring to the hit CBS television show about crime-scene investigators.

In the 2006 grape juice case, no one else who drank juice made from the same batch as the tainted bottle fell ill. That led GMA's forensic scientists to suspect that someone had tampered with the juice after it was sealed. The burning sensation the congregants reported made them think lye or acid had been added.

The congregants had also said the juice tasted like soap. The sample had foam and a perfume-like smell. Tests revealed that it contained dishwashing detergent. Comparing it to samples of detergent sold in the area, the lab was able to narrow down the likely brands. It turned its results over to the company.

Police independently reached the same conclusions based on analyses by the Connecticut Forensic Laboratory and the Connecticut Toxicology Laboratory, said Capt. Fred Komm of the Darien Police Department. They eventually arrested an employee at the store where the church bought the communion juice.

If having a team of scientists on call sounds like an unusual perk for a food industry trade group to offer, it is.

The lab is a vestige of GMA's history, which dates to the start of the National Canners Assn. in 1907. At the time, canning was much less consistent than it is today, and people contracted botulism from eating food that was not properly sealed.

The lab was set up to identify what wasn't working and to come up with better methods. It gradually developed an expertise in food forensics. When the group later became the Food Products Assn., which in turn merged with GMA in 2007, the lab became part of GMA.

GMA now handles about 1,000 foreign-object cases a year. Claims work, as it is called, makes up about a third of the lab's workload. The rest of the time is spent on research such as evaluating the sensitivity and reliability of tests designed to detect food allergens or performing "tear-downs" -- an autopsy of sorts on a defective can. It is work that government agencies and private labs don't typically do.

"We're more interested in problem-solving," said Robert Brackett, a former top Food and Drug Administration official who is senior vice president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer at GMA.

Scientists come to GMA from universities, companies and public health labs. They work in several rooms inside the association's Washington offices that are stocked with state-of-the-art equipment including an electron microscope, an infrared scanner, a gas chromatography machine and several food processors.

Technology can be more accurate than the naked eye. In many of the cases that come to GMA, things often are not what they first appear. What someone mistakes for an eyelash is really plant material. What looks like glass is a natural ingredient that crystallized during processing.

There are also times when the forensic scientists can do their job without gadgets.

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