Albany lab on a mission to keep food safe

June 07, 2019 06:40 PM

In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control estimates 48 million people get sick every year from foodborne diseases.

Foodborne illnesses land 128,000 people in the hospital and the Centers for Disease Control says 3,000 people die.


Identifying trouble before it reaches your table is the key to saving lives.

New York state has a state of the art food testing lab where some 15,000 food items are tested every year. NewsChannel 13 got a tour this week.

Drive through the State Office Campus in Albany and you're likely to see a modern building. It houses the food safety testing labs of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

It was opened in 2013 as response to the adoption of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. The work is focused on one goal - to keep us healthy by preventing foodborne illness.

"This is supposed to take a proactive, preventive approach to food safety as opposed to having boots on the ground to react to foodborne illness. So essentially, you're trying to prevent the foodborne illnesses from occurring rather than reacting to them," said Jennifer Trodden, with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

There are 15,000 food samples tested each year. Most are dairy products. They face the toughest regulations nationwide. In New York, the same approach is focused on other items, from produce, to prepared foods. The key is finding pathogens like listeria and salmonella before they reach you, the consumer. Also playing a role, state of the art technology called whole genome sequencing.

"Basically, it's a type of technology that attaches a fingerprint to every single different type of pathogen," said Trodden.

So if there's an outbreak of a foodborne illness, they can round up the usual suspects, like sprouts, romaine lettuce and other items often involved - and check the genetic fingerprint. Faster ID of the culprit limits the damage to the community.

It's not just testing foods to make sure that there are no pathogens that could make you sick. Inspectors go out and look at the products on the store shelves. If they don't look right - maybe the color is too bright, they'll bring them back here to be tested to make sure they don't have verboten items in them.

That includes things like lead, arsenic, cadmium and chromium - or unapproved dyes - and allergens not listed on food labels - things like milk, eggs, nuts and fish.

"We actually recall more products than any other state in the United States. It's because of the technology we have here at this food lab that enables us to do that, to be a leader when it comes to food safety," said Trodden.

However, Trodden says we also have a role to play. She reminds us to always wash our hands before handling food, keep raw and cooked food separate, promptly refrigerate foods that need to be kept cold and cook food to the proper temperature.

"Four simple steps can really make a difference," said Trodden.

While riskier foods like sprouts and romaine lettuce often top the list to be checked, Trodden says she eats a Caesar salad with romaine almost every day. That's how much she trusts the system.


Benita Zahn

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