In a relatively small, refurbished building next door to the Food & Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition in College Park, Md., sits a state-of-the-art laboratory dedicated to teaching scientists from around the world analytical methods that will help them comply with U.S. food safety regulations. The International Food Safety Training Laboratory (IFSTL)—a joint effort among the University of Maryland, FDA, and the analytical instrumentation company Waters—opened its doors to its first group of students earlier this fall.
Romina Heymann (top), a Ph.D. candidate in organic chemistry at the University of Maryland, teaches trainees—including a group of Asian scientists—how to detect 200 pesticides in fresh produce using liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry.
Inside the 4,800-sq-ft training facility, food safety scientists from foreign and U.S. governments, as well as private industry, can get hands-on laboratory experience performing FDA-recommended methods for food sample preparation and analysis. Courses will focus on detecting chemicals such as pesticides, veterinary drugs, and mycotoxins, as well as microorganisms.
So far, two one-week courses on pesticide residue analysis have been held at IFSTL. One course was attended by scientists from Asia and another, by scientists from Latin America.
Courses are established based on specific needs identified at various FDA offices around the world, says Janie Dubois, director of IFSTL. Demand for training to meet U.S. food safety regulations has been soaring, she notes, because of new requirements that will go into effect in January 2012, under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law early this year.
That legislation allows FDA to require third-party certification or other assurances that high-risk imported foods comply with U.S. standards. It also gives FDA the ability to stop high-risk imported foods at the border when products fail to meet those standards. “There is great interest for training in U.S. methods because now exporters will have a responsibility to show that their product is safe before it enters the U.S.,” Dubois says. FDA did not previously have the authority to require such certification.
The U.S. imported more than $86 billion worth of food in 2010, compared with $43 billion in 2000, according to data from the Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau. Food imports have been increasing in the U.S. at a rate of about 10% per year since 2002.
The training facility was opened because of “constant requests from people around the world for training by FDA and on FDA-recommended methods,” Dubois says. “The unique aspect of IFSTL is that we have access to FDA scientists who come in as trainers,” she notes.
Waters provided instrumentation and financial backing to get IFSTL up and running. The company says it joined the partnership largely because of requests from its customers. Scientists from foreign countries have asked Waters for help in meeting U.S. food safety standards because FDA “was struggling to deliver that kind of training,” explains Paul Young, director of chemical analysis operations at Waters. “FDA would send people on an ad hoc basis to these countries, but they realized that it really is not the most productive way to deliver training,” he says.
By bringing the scientists to a facility next door to FDA where food safety technology is available and some trainers are specialists who helped develop food safety methods, “we are able to show not only how to do a method and explain why you do certain steps of the method, but also how you validate changes to that method,” Dubois says.
The ability to validate changes is particularly important for some countries where state-of-the-art equipment is not available, Dubois points out. As a result, about 20% of each training course is dedicated to validating changes, she says.
IFSTL is the first food safety training facility of its kind in the U.S. It has the capacity to teach 200 scientists per year, and 20 scientists per course. The cost for a one- or two-week course is about $500 per student per day, Dubois says. To help pay for this training, participants may be able to get travel and tuition grants from organizations such as the World Bank or the group Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, she says.
Once the facility is running a full schedule of courses, it is expected to be self-funded and operate as a nonprofit organization. For the next three to five years, however, the University of Maryland and Waters will be supporting it financially. FDA is not providing funds to run IFSTL, but it is providing trainers and expertise.
Reactions to the new training facility so far have been stellar, Waters’ Young notes. “We’ve had a lot of questions and requests from regulators in other countries saying that this one facility in the U.S. can only do so much and we should consider expanding this into a network of laboratories,” he says. And that is exactly what Waters is planning to do. “We are currently in negotiations with regulators in a number of other countries about establishing sister facilities,” Young tells C&EN.
Young acknowledges that “it is probably not an unrealistic expectation” for Waters to see an increase in sales of its ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry systems and other instrumentation used during the training courses. “But that is certainly not the goal,” he says.
The goal is to improve food safety and build laboratory capacity around the world. “There is a lot more to this than just teaching people how to run a method,” Young says. “For me, this is as much about building community as it is about training people.”