By Lori Newman, Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston Public AffairsJune 3, 2013
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON -- The team at the Department of Defense Food Analysis and Diagnostic Laboratory, or FADL, at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston takes their job very seriously. They don't have a lot of time for fiddle-faddle, unless it's one of the many food samples being tested.
The FADL is one of three primary public health laboratories in the U.S. Army Public Health Command arsenal. It is the leading DOD laboratory for food safety testing and zoonotic disease diagnosis and surveillance.
A zoonosis is an infectious disease that is transmitted between species (sometimes by a vector) from animals other than humans to humans, or from humans to other animals.
Food Safety and Technical Support
"The food safety and technical support section is our interface with the rest of the world," said FADL director Lt. Col. Scott Hanna. "They are responsible for customer support and customer service."
This section receives all the samples, processes them into the system and sends them to the appropriate area for testing. Once testing is complete, they compile a report and send it back to the requester.
Microbiology and Food Chemistry
The food analysis portion of the FADL consists of two key sections -- microbiology and food chemistry.
The microbiology section looks for bacteria or fungi in food products, including bottled water, which may cause disease or illness. Examples of these bacteria include salmonella, E. coli and Listeria.
The food chemistry section looks for metals such as lead and other toxins, like pesticides, that may be in food.
These sections help ensure the safety, fitness for consumption and contractual compliance of foods and bottled water to protect service members and their families, as well as civilians, who live or work on military installations.
This is done through microbiological, chemical and toxicological testing of foods and products such as dairy, meat and fish products; prepared sandwiches and salads; operational rations; canned and packaged foods; fresh fruits and vegetables; animal feeds; cosmetics and vitamins.
"Our mission has changed over the years," Hanna said. "We have always helped ensure that the military food supply was safe and wholesome, but in the past we also did a lot of quality assurance.
"This included things like making sure 2 percent milk actually contained 2 percent fat," Hanna said. "Now we focus much more on making sure the food folks eat is safe and healthy."
As part of its destination monitoring program, the USAPHC headquarters at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., provides Army veterinary food inspectors a list of food products each quarter that may have a higher potential risk of contamination.
From that list, the veterinary food inspectors all over the world go to commissaries and dining facilities and collect samples for testing. The samples are sent to the FADL for analysis.
"We average about 4,000 food samples per year. A little more than half those samples come from the destination monitoring program," Hanna said.
"A sample of any food product that might be sold to the military has a chance to come through our laboratory to be tested at some point."
Recently, a veterinary food inspector in New York pulled sliced apples from a food vendor and sent them to the FADL for testing.
Initial tests showed the apples were potentially contaminated with Listeria. The microbiology section did confirmatory testing and sent the results to the Food and Drug Administration along with a sample.
The FDA confirmed the findings.
"It was about two weeks from the time we detected the Listeria in the sample to the time it made the news that there was a nation-wide recall on sliced apple products sold at fast food restaurants and several grocery store chains across the country," said Maj. Karl Hochstein, FADL deputy director.
"The finding by that one veterinary food inspector in the field resulted in a national recall," Hochstein said.
After the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the FADL helped in developing a process to test seafood for contamination and determine if it was safe to eat.
"Our personnel were involved in a series of meetings and teleconferences as part of a food safety network to develop a protocol for testing the seafood," Hochstein said. "Samples were then submitted to us from all along the gulf coast region."
The chemistry section screened all the samples to determine if there was any contamination from either the oil or the chemicals used to disperse the oil.
"We tested a fair number of samples, probably a couple hundred, representative of all different kinds of seafood from that area. Nothing that we tested was contaminated with either oil or the dispersants," he explained.
The FADL will also test food samples if people get sick after eating at a restaurant or dining facility on a military installation, or if a customer reports a foreign object or other problem in their food.
The diagnostics section analyzes more than 8,500 human, animal and insect specimens each year for diagnosis and surveillance of diseases of public health significance. The primary focus is on zoonotic diseases that may have been transmitted from animals to humans.
"This section has really expanded, previously they did almost entirely rabies testing," Hanna said. "Now they test for many zoonotic diseases, such as leptospirosis, Leishmania, Chagas disease and West Nile virus."
One of this section's main missions is to support the health and combat readiness of military working dogs worldwide and the international travel of pets of military families.
"The FAVN (Fluorescent Antibody Virus Neutralization) test is needed for pets and military working dogs that travel to many overseas areas," Hanna said. "It ensures that the animal's rabies vaccine is effective before that animal goes into an area that is free of the disease."
The FADL also assists the state of Texas with its feral animal rabies control program and supports San Antonio Military Medical Center with laboratory testing for diseases such as rabies and leptospirosis.
"We conduct mosquito and bird testing for the West Nile virus on military installations throughout the PHC-South region," Hanna explained. "We were the first to detect the virus in the San Antonio area in 2012."
The laboratory also assists U.S. Army South in evaluating and building laboratory capacity in partner nations throughout the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility.
"Teams go to locations in Central and South America to determine what potential diseases are there and what sort of testing capabilities the host nations have, so we can make sure our troops are protected," Hochstein said.
"We also participate in research projects, both in evaluating new technologies and test methods, and in conducting disease surveillance," Hanna said.
Cholinesterase Reference Laboratory
The CRL provides testing for individuals involved with chemical weapons response and those working to eliminate old military stockpiles.
"The lab helps ensure that health care providers know if anyone has been accidentally exposed to chemical agents before they become ill," Hanna said.
In addition to testing more than 8,000 samples per year at the FADL, the CRL team helps oversee this testing at several satellite labs throughout the country.
"Our laboratory is an accredited testing laboratory," Hochstein said.
The quality assurance section ensures the FADL maintains its accreditation. They monitor all aspects of lab operations, making sure the testing is valid and accurate.
The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation is the agency that provides the accreditation.
"A2LA works off the ISO/IEC 17025 quality standards, which is a set of guidelines we as a laboratory need to follow. All of our plans, procedures and tests are done in accordance with this testing standard," Hochstein said.
"The goal of this standard is to ensure the traceability for any sample we test. So any of our customers can be assured the testing we provide is the most accurate possible."
"The accreditation is also important because it allows our test results to be both legally defensible and accepted by other government agencies," Hanna said.
The FADL works closely with FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture, sharing results on food borne pathogens so those food items can be quickly removed from the U.S. market if necessary.
The laboratory is also part of the Food Emergency Response Network, the National Animal Health Laboratory Network and the Defense Laboratory Network.