After one year in operation, the International Food Safety Training Lab is doing exactly what it was founded to do: train foreign scientists in leading food testing methods. But, like all fledgling programs, IFSTL has also adapted with experience, opening up its classrooms to trade policymakers and industry professionals, all as part of its goal to improve the safety of food traded to the U.S. and abroad.

The lab – which opened its doors in September of 2011 – is operated by the University of Maryland in cooperation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition is located next door to the 4,600-sqare foot IFSTL facility in College Park, Maryland. This allows FDA scientists to participate in teaching at the lab, explaining government standards and testing methods to students.

Past topics have included screening for Cronobacter in infant formula, aflatoxin in crops and pesticide residues on fresh produce.

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat safety, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets pesticide residue limits for food, also come to the school to explain why they set the standards they do, and what kinds of test results they accept.

“(Students) feel so lucky to be getting one-on-one interactions with FDA specialists and USDA specialists and EPA because they come in to explain how and why they set the residues for pesticides or other standards, and that interaction is incredible,” said Jane Dubois, Director of IFSTL in an interview with Food Safety News.

By understanding how the U.S. sets its contamination controls, foreign exporters can better understand how to meet them. And by learning to use internationally recognized testing methods, students are able to verify whether a product meets a country’s standard, even if those standards vary from market to market, because the method is sound, explains Dubois.

“The method they learn, they could use for any other country,” she says. We always teach methods that are “fit for purpose.” They’re published, they’ve been validated by recognized groups. These methods have credibility and therefore are acceptable in trade. The beauty of it is now these results can be looked at with confidence.”

Students use the skills they learn at IFSTL for different purposes depending on their backgrounds. Some are scientists who will go on to train others in their country in these testing methods. Many of this past years’ participants have been from Indonesia and Guatemala, says Dubois.

Others are policymakers who want to be more informed about food safety policy when in trade discussions.

“That was a surprise for us,” says Dubois. At its outset, IFSTL didn’t intend to take on anyone who wasn’t a food scientist, since the courses are so lab-intensive. “What we’re realizing is people in trade do have scientific backgrounds, so they are fully capable of taking a course in laboratory work, and yet the way they want to use it in their job is much more of the policy component,” she says.

As an example, Dubois mentions a man from Chile involved in trade discussions with the U.S.

“His interest was to learn and understand why the U.S. has certain regulations and requirements for pesticide residues, how these levels are established, how governmental organizations establish them and enforce them in ag and food and what these tolerances mean.” After taking the course he was “able to understand what was achievable and what was not.”

Dubois says courses are designed based on the needs of upcoming participants. Right now, the program is focusing on microbial contamination, including Salmonella and E. coli.

Today marks the first day of a weeklong course on detecting E. coli in fresh produce and meat. For the first half of the week, participants will learn about E. coli O157:H7 on fresh produce. An FDA scientist will explain how the agency tests for the bacteria on fruits and vegetables. Then experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will come in during the second half of the week to discuss protocol for testing for the “Big Six” E. coli strains, which were declared illegal if found in meat trim by the agency last year. Screening for those pathogens began in June of 2012.

In November, a course on microscopic identification of plants will teach students how to determine whether or not the ingredient is what’s listed on the label.

This coming March a training will focus on identifying drug residues in meat and poultry.

A second IFSTL lab will be opening this month near York, England. The UK lab will be run by the federal Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera). Both labs were founded in partnership with Waters Corporation, a U.S.-based manufacturer of scientific equipment.