FDA Consumer

Food Safety Research Center offers taste of the future

Food Safety Research Center offers taste of the future – National Center for Food Safety and Technology

Paula Kurtzweil

At the new National Center for Food Safety and Technology (NCFST) in Bedford Park, Ill., food scientists from the Food and Drug Administration are getting a taste of things to come.

Replete with renovated laboratories, some new laboratory equipment and supplies, and lots of work space, 33 FDA scientists and other staff members are studying how upand-coming food processing and packaging technologies may affect food safety.

Since the establishment of the collaborative research program in late 1990, the scientists have been studying emerging food issues that include recycled plastic food containers, computerization of food processing systems, shelf-life extension of food, and use of biotechnology-derived tools for detecting contaminants in food.

Their ultimate goal: to enhance the safety and quality of food products.

The research at the center is made possible through the center’s unique consortium of government, industry and academia devoted to cooperative food safety research on food biotechnology and food processing and packaging technologies.

In addition to FDA, the center is supported by the Illinois Institute of Technology, the IIT Research Institute, the University of Illinois, and 38 food-related companies. (See accompanying box.) FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition oversees the agency’s role in NCFST.

According to FDA Commissioner David Kessler, M.D., the center helps FDA carry out two of its food-related missions: to serve as a leader in food safety and to foster innovation.

“If we haven’t done some of the work ourselves, if we haven’t been there scientifically, it will be all too easy for FDA to say no’ to new advances as they come in for review,” he said.

He also noted that while NCFST participants will benefit from the center’s research, the ultimate beneficiary is the consumer. “This is as it should be,” he said.

The benefits, explained NCFST director Richard Lechowich, Ph.D., include more than just a safe food supply; consumers also will have food that is nutritious, tastes good, and is economically produced. “That’s what consumers are interested in,” he said.

Why a National Food Center?

According to Lechowich, the center was created so that government, academia, and the food industry would have a common ground on which to meet and share new food technologies. In doing so, he said, they can help ensure that the benefits of those new technologies get to the consumer as quickly as possible. [Here], government, academia and industry can work together to solve problems,” he said.

The center’s development also was prompted by the increasing use of new food processes and packaging technologies; the use of new ingredients produced through biotechnology; and the growing use of ingredient replacements for sugars, fats, proteins, and other nutrients, said FDA’a David Armstrong, Ph.D., NCFST’s associate director for research.

“These new foods and processes raise new questions about the safety and nutritive value of these products,” he said. “That’s precisely why the NCFST’s research is so necessary.”

Increased competition from foreign markets was another incentive for creating NCFST, Lechowich said. He noted that the constant mergers and consolidations in the food industry often interfere with companies’ ability to carry out long-term research. As a result, the United States may fall behind other countries in advanced technologies and thus lose its ability to compete worldwide, he said.

The center hopes to take its research one step further: It plans to use its studies as the basis on which future food safety and food regulatory decisions in this country are made.

“The real proof of NCFST’s success will be the research that is generated there and the national policy that the research helps set,” said Robert McVicker, a senior vice president for Kraft General Foods and chairman of the center’s oversight committee. “Real science will tell the real truth.”

Getting to Work

Currently, the science is being done by the center’s 37 employees, four of whom are employed by IIT. Among the latter is director Lechowich, a food scientist with more than 30 years of academic and industrial experience.

Their work site is CPC International Inc.’s former corporate research and development facility on the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Moffett Campus in a southwest suburb of Chicago. CPC donated the $7 million facility in 1988.

It includes more than 40 laboratories, many of which have been been renovated and stocked with new lab equipment and glassware. The’re also are three pilot plants, two of which will house scaled-down versions of industrial food processing and packaging equipment to be used for research on all stages of food processing and packaging. The third is an industrial-sized plant that will include a biotechnology mini-pilot plant.

“Rather than just hearing or reading about new food processing technologies, we can now get hands-on experience,” Armstrong said. He noted that NCFST is the only facility where FDA has such capabilities.

Already in place is a scaled-down version of a high-temperature, short-time pasteurizer, which is being used to study the feasibility of monitoring milk pasteurization via computer-linked sensors placed at critical processing points in the equipment. Currently, hard-wired systems are used to monitor and ensure proper pasteurization at these points, where the potential is greatest for a health hazard to be introduced.

According to FDA’s Carol Harper, Ph.D., a research engineer involved in the project, the research aims to add additional safety checks in milk pasteurization and expedite record review during inspections. This will result in cost savings, she explained, by generating data more quickly and accurately than the current practice of recording data by hand.

“We plan to expand our approach to other food processing areas, too,” she said.

Another NCFST research project under way involves examining potential hazards of recycled plastic bottles for food use. FDA’s Vanee Komolprasert, Ph.D., who is participating in the research, said recycling of various plastic materials used in food packaging-such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for 2-liter soft drink bottles-is becoming a “hot topic” because of environmental and cost concerns.

A major question raised by such recycling, she said, is whether non-food substances, such as lawn chemicals and automobile lubricants, that consumers may store in the containers can be absorbed into the plastic and even survive the recycling process. (See “What Happens if the Packaging Gets into the Food?” in the November 1991 FDA Consumer.)

Other current projects include:

* studying factors that may extend the shelf life of fresh fish using modified atmosphere packaging (MAP)-A process in which an increased concentration of carbon dioxide is used to retard bacterial growth. Factors to be studied include high-barrier film packaging and storage temperatures.

* studying the potential of biotechnology-derived biosensors as tools to detect staphylococcal enterotoxins (bacteria-induced toxins that manifest themselves in the intestines) in milk and other foods as they are being processed, thus enhancing their safety. FDA’s Sangsuk Oh, Ph.D., a researcher involved in the project, said the work eventually will be expanded to include detection of other toxins that may get into foods during manufacturing.

* developing the “Moffett Factor,” an index for predicting a food product’s potential microbiological risk by considering such factors as food composition, processing method, storage time and temperature, pH, and preservatives used.

According to Armstrong, the center’s technical advisory committee decides what projects to undertake. The committee is made up of representatives of FDA, IIT, IIT Research Institute, the University of Illinois, and member companies.

Educating Future Researchers

In addition to the research, NCFST is providing a training and educational ground for IIT’s master’s degree program in food safety and technology–the first graduate program of its kind in the United States. It began in September 1991.

Also in the works are short courses and symposia, and various publications to update food science professionals about emerging food safety issues.

Ultimately, the consortium hopes to make NCFST the world’s source of food safety expertise and knowledge. Said Commissioner Kessler during a speech at the center’s dedication, “I am hopeful that in 10 or 15 years, the world will know the National Center for Food Safety and Technology for what, today, it has only the potential to be: an internationally recognized and truly collaborative facility that provides the best know-how about food science and technology.”

Paula Kurtzweil is editor of FDA Today, the agency’s employee publication.

COPYRIGHT 1991 U.S. Government Printing Office

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