Food world’s version of ‘CSI’

The Washington Post

It wasn’t normal for a service at Calvary Baptist Church to end with a 911 call.

Then again, the burning sensation parishioners felt as they sipped their communion grape juice wasn’t normal, either.

“As soon as we drank it, we knew something was wrong,” said the Rev. Anthony Gibson, the pastor of the church in Darien, Conn.

The congregants called the police. The police called the grape juice company. And the grape juice company called a team of forensic scientists that specializes in fishing clues from fillets and prying confessions from tomato cans.


The 22 chemists, microbiologists and food science experts work for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a Washington trade group that represents food companies such as Kraft Foods Inc., Campbell Soup Co. and General Mills Inc.

GMA’s members turn to the group’s in-house forensics experts when they receive a complaint about an eyelash in a pot pie or a bug in a can of stew. The team of scientists, led by lab director Jeffrey Barach and GMA senior counsel David Herman, are tasked with figuring out whether the company is dealing with a prank, an innocent mistake, a production error or sabotage.

“It really is like ‘CSI’ trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together,” Herman said, referring to the hit CBS television show about crime-scene investigators.

In the 2006 grape juice case, no one else who drank juice made from the same batch as the tainted bottle fell ill. That led GMA’s forensic scientists to suspect that someone had tampered with the juice after it was sealed. The burning sensation the congregants reported made them think lye or acid had been added.

The congregants had also said the juice tasted like soap. The sample had foam and a perfume-like smell. Tests revealed that it contained dishwashing detergent. Comparing it to samples of detergent sold in the area, the lab was able to narrow down the likely brands. It turned its results over to the company.

Police independently reached the same conclusions based on analyses by the Connecticut Forensic Laboratory and the Connecticut Toxicology Laboratory, said Capt. Fred Komm of the Darien Police Department. They eventually arrested an employee at the store where the church bought the communion juice.

If having a team of scientists on call sounds like an unusual perk for a food industry trade group to offer, it is.

The lab is a vestige of GMA’s history, which dates to the start of the National Canners Assn. in 1907. At the time, canning was much less consistent than it is today, and people contracted botulism from eating food that was not properly sealed.

The lab was set up to identify what wasn’t working and to come up with better methods. It gradually developed an expertise in food forensics. When the group later became the Food Products Assn., which in turn merged with GMA in 2007, the lab became part of GMA.

GMA now handles about 1,000 foreign-object cases a year. Claims work, as it is called, makes up about a third of the lab’s workload. The rest of the time is spent on research such as evaluating the sensitivity and reliability of tests designed to detect food allergens or performing “tear-downs” -- an autopsy of sorts on a defective can. It is work that government agencies and private labs don’t typically do.

“We’re more interested in problem-solving,” said Robert Brackett, a former top Food and Drug Administration official who is senior vice president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer at GMA.

Scientists come to GMA from universities, companies and public health labs. They work in several rooms inside the association’s Washington offices that are stocked with state-of-the-art equipment including an electron microscope, an infrared scanner, a gas chromatography machine and several food processors.

Technology can be more accurate than the naked eye. In many of the cases that come to GMA, things often are not what they first appear. What someone mistakes for an eyelash is really plant material. What looks like glass is a natural ingredient that crystallized during processing.

There are also times when the forensic scientists can do their job without gadgets.

A few years ago, they received a utility blade that a consumer claimed to have found in a canned tomato product. The case fell to Jim Charboneau, a chemist who has been with the lab for more than 40 years. Through the processor’s records, he was able to determine that it had been packed and sealed a year earlier. The blade sported a few stains but still looked new. So Charboneau wanted to see what an identical blade would look like if it sat in a can of tomato sauce for a year and compare it to the sample. He put identical blades in different cans of sauce and sealed them. After a month, he opened one can and found the blade had etching on its surface. After two months, he opened another. That blade had deteriorated more than the first. When he opened another can after three months, he couldn’t find a blade. It had been eaten away by the natural acidity of the sauce.

Charboneau concluded that the blade had to have been added after the can was sealed.

The facts don’t always implicate the consumer, and food tampering is rare. But the cases that stem from human ingenuity tend to be the most memorable.

A few years ago, a customer in Florida said he had found a small hard object in a canned vegetable product. The customer and the company wanted to know what it was. Looking at it under a microscope, the GMA scientists saw that it wasn’t a stone but a very small claw or a fingernail from an animal.

Classifying animal parts was beyond their expertise, so they sent the object to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. The Smithsonian reported back that it was a claw from a lizard indigenous to Florida. The can was packaged in Minnesota.

The GMA forensic team never learned exactly how the lizard nail got into the can. They often don’t find out the who or why after they turn their findings in to a manufacturer. In many cases, there’s nothing to know. Once consumers find out there are scientific data that dispute a claim, they drop it. Only in high-profile situations do the scientists get the whole story.

Earlier this year, for example, the lab was called in on a case in which a consumer claimed to have found pills in her crispy battered fish fillets. Based on the claim alone, the manufacturer recalled about 1,000 cases of the fillets in 10 states.

The first order of business was figuring out whether the objects were really pills. The sample GMA received looked nothing like a pill that came straight out of a bottle. It was oblong, and half of it was gone. Tests revealed it contained no starch, but the lab found microcrystalline cellulose and calcium carbonate -- common as fillers in over-the-counter drugs.

The sample was sent to a lab that specialized in pharmaceuticals. That lab concluded the active ingredient was melatonin, which is sold as a supplement and sleep aid. The information was sent to the company. Federal investigators separately came to the same conclusion. Eventually one of the consumer’s children admitted putting the pills in the fillets. No charges were filed.