Employees of the U.S. Army Public Health Command are found in 14 time zones in 85 countries, but who would expect to find them in Antarctica?
It is in this remotest continent that USAPHC veterinary food safety officers perform food inspections for the National Science Foundation's Polar Program and the military personnel assigned to McMurdo Station.
Antarctica is the "est" continent--the highest, driest, coldest, windiest and cleanest continent on earth, according to Gwen Adams, safety and occupational health manager of the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs.
The Antarctic also is a unique natural laboratory, and scientists live in this environment 12 months of the year. However, most of their food supply must be shipped during the short summer season, usually in January, while shipping lanes are open.
"The annual resupply of the Antarctic stations including McMurdo Station, South Pole Station and remote field camps is an intense 24-hour a day operation that lasts for five to seven days," said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Christopher Finch, Food Protection Program deputy program manager at the USAPHC, who made seven trips to Antarctica. "Food inspections for these locations are performed through an agreement with the NSF to ensure they have independent food inspection."
But there is more to providing food for the Antarctic stations than a single week of inspections.
"Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert McNeil provides procurement and sanitation inspections and approved source verification. He also observes the contractor's food handling personnel and equipment hygiene practices for 24-hour meal service operations at McMurdo," explained Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Warren, chief, Operational Rations Section at the USAPHC. "We only have one opportunity to get it right, because there is no full-time inspector onsite."
McNeil, food safety officer at Public Health Command District--Western Pacific, New Zealand Branch, is currently on a three-year assignment and coordinates the support for the NSF program. According to McNeil, he is the only U.S. military member currently assigned to New Zealand outside of the U.S. embassy.
"In 2011, 10 to 15 refrigerated/frozen containers and their temperature recorders became inoperable during the voyage from California to New Zealand," explained McNeil. "Fortunately, the NSF logistics personnel placed data-loggers in every container. After checking the data-logger information on each container, I was able to determine that no potentially hazardous foods had been exposed to unacceptable temperatures, saving close to a million dollars of food from being discarded."
Food is inspected and loaded on the U.S. West Coast in late December to be shipped on the annual supply vessel. This shipment provides approximately a 13-month food supply. In addition, air-drops provide routine supplies of fresh foods to McMurdo Station and the South Pole, according to Warren.
Fresh foods are also shipped from New Zealand during the Antarctic summer from November to March after audits by the regional USAPHC food specialist. Some fresh food is also grown in a hydroponic garden at the pole.
"Foods shipped to Antarctica also have to meet very stringent packaging regulations," explained Finch. "Due to the extreme temperatures, foods can't be packed in glass, and packaging has to meet environmental regulations that dictate how much waste the food packaging can produce. Any unused food is shipped back."
Storage conditions at the pole can be challenging as well. Food shipped to Antarctica is usually six to eight months old and will be stored for as much as a full year before use.
"The extreme temperatures can cause meats and other foods to dehydrate, affecting the quality," Warren explained. "We check that the maximum shelf life is what was ordered to ensure that the food will retain its quality in this harsh environment."
When not facing wind-chill temperatures of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Antarctica, McNeil performs audits of local and regional commercial food processing facilities supporting the NSF and U.S. forces worldwide from his location in New Zealand.
"This assignment was a fantastic experience," said McNeil. "Meeting the unique food inspection challenges at McMurdo and the South Pole stations due to the unusual operational conditions and environment, interacting with the NSF personnel, and exploring the historical sites were opportunities no other job could offer."