Mobile food-safety labs get FDA up to speed

Elizabeth Weise of USA Today once again goes to the food safety frontlines to report about the mobile testing laboratory being used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, this time at the border crossing between Mexico and Nogales, Arizona.

Seventy percent of the fruits and vegetables Americans consume in winter are imported from Mexico, a total of 7 billion pounds, says Allison Moore, communications director for the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. About half comes through Nogales.

The road that leads to the border begins to fill with trucks carrying fruits, vegetables and manufactured goods at 6:30 a.m. By noon there can be a line of trucks up to 7 miles long snaking through the low desert hills waiting to make the crossing (right ,photo from USA Today).

The lab represents a new era for the agency in keeping the food supply safe, says Michael Chappell, FDA acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. It is a tool that can be suited up and rolled out to anyplace in the country facing the danger of contaminated food, whether at the hand of terrorists or Mother Nature.

In the three weeks the trailers were based in Nogales before heading to their next assignment, the FDA estimates that direct contact with the truckers shaved tens of thousands of dollars in testing costs and spoiled produce. The mobile unit also may help repair the agency’s reputation, which has been battered by public frustration with the contamination of such popular foods as peanuts and spinach.