Federal and state health officials investigating foodborne illness outbreaks and other food safety emergencies in recent years have received help from an increasingly prolific network of laboratories designed to respond to biological, chemical and radiological contamination of food as rapidly as possible. This network, called the Federal Emergency Response Network, or FERN, has helped authorities test everything from spinach during the 2006 E. coli outbreak to seafood during the Deep Water Horizon oil spill of 2010. FERN Director Randy Layton was on hand Wednesday at the 2013 International Association for Food Protection annual meeting in Charlotte, NC, to tout some of the network’s abilities and accomplishments in a presentation entitled, “FERN: Federal and State Laboratories Working Together to Improve Food Defense.” Cooperatively managed between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FERN’s goal is to detect, prevent and respond to threats to the food system — whether intentional or accidental. The network currently represents all 50 states and Puerto Rico at 172 laboratories, including 39 federal, 113 state and 17 local labs. Each of those labs specializes in one or more discipline, with 133 FERN labs providing microbiological support, 111 specializing in chemical contaminants and 36 able to perform radiochemistry testing. The network has six training centers around the country that have trained more than 600 people on the latest methods to rapidly test pathogens and other contaminants. So what has FERN done with all this lab power? In 2008, the second-largest Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak in U.S. history struck more than 1,400 people. Though the source was originally suspected to be tomatoes, FERN laboratories and others ultimately traced the source back to jalapeño peppers imported from Mexico. When the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill contaminated gulf seafood with unsafe levels of hydrocarbons, FERN chemistry laboratories keep monitoring samples until the shrimp, crab, finfish and oysters were once again safe to eat. FERN’s radiology labs also assisted during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, assessing the capability of gamma-emitting radionuclides and providing reagents and other supplies to labs in need. The Network continues to expand its accreditation to more labs. Layton said that FERN’s ultimate goal is to broaden the nation’s ability to detect and prevent food contamination before it develops into disastrous situations.