Saving the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN)

By Nancy Maddox, MPH

9/11 and the ensuing anthrax attacks were tragedies of historic proportion. But in the wake of tragedy, some good did emerge.

One positive outcome, a result of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9, was the creation of the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN)—an integrated group of food-testing laboratories whose mission is to help the nation detect, respond to and recover from threats to the food supply. Although food terrorism was the immediate impetus for FERN—which is coordinated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the network has been instrumental in responding to both intentional and unintentional food contaminations. In so doing, FERN has saved lives many times over and helped preserve confidence in the food Americans eat every day.

Since its inception, FERN has been activated numerous times, including:

  • In 2006, when E. coli O157:H7 was detected in spinach.
  • In 2007, when toxic melamine showed up in animal feed imported fromChina.
  • In 2008, when Salmonella was detected in peppers.
  • In 2009, when Salmonella was detected in peanut butter
  • In 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill contaminated Gulf Coast seafood.
  • In 2011, amidst fears that radioactive fallout from the Japan Nuclear Event had contaminated part of theUSfood supply.

Angela Fritzinger, PhD, a FERN Training Coordinator and Southwest Regional Coordinator based at the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS), said FERN funding enabled DCLS to purchase advanced instrumentation, supplies and maintenance contracts in order to maintain a ready-state of preparedness. It also funds several DCLS staff members, including three microbiologists, a senior scientist, three chemists, a lead chemist and Fritzinger herself.

In addition to the high-profile food contamination events listed above, DCLS scientists have been engaged in other “food defense assignments,” including screening potable aircraft water for threat agents (2005), screening school lunch program foods for chemical and biological threat agents (2006) and testing for melamine in imported foods (2008).

When staff and equipment are not involved in emergency testing, they are used for other critical activities:  proficiency testing to maintain staff competency, preparedness exercises, training of other network members, other food-related testing, multi-laboratory validations of new test methods and extensions of existing methods to new food matrices.

For example, Fritzinger said, “Cookie dough wasn’t part of the original E. coli O157:H7 method; it wasn’t validated for that use. But, thanks to FERN, we were able to quickly evaluate and validate the method for cookie dough when we needed to; all the equipment and trained scientists were in place and competent in the original method.”

Fritzinger oversees training for other FERN scientists at the DCLS site, as well as first responders, such as National Guard Civil Support Teams, with courses ranging from advanced biosafety principals and practices to anthrax testing.  These courses are also available at the three other FERN Training Centers nationwide.  To date, the DCLS FERN Training Center has hosted 12 classes and 104 students and was able to provide funding for 35 students and instructors to travel and attend.

Through FERN, DCLS was able to evaluate alternative methods for detecting polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, toxic components of crude oil, in seafood after the BP oil spill in 2010 and to develop high-throughput methods for detecting melamine and its analogs in pig urine in 2007. DCLS chemists alone have validated test methods for 30 different types of foods.

This infrastructure—people, equipment and protocols—took many years to put in place. With it, Fritzinger said, “We can maintain a state of readiness. Because we have improved instrumentation and more trained people, we can more rapidly do the testing and test more samples.”

On the tenth anniversary of the sad events that prompted its creation, FERN funding is now in jeopardy. The gutting of FERN would eliminate a critical pillar of food defense in the United States and erase a vital legacy of 9/11.

 

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