The work of 43 people in New York led to more than 300 recalls and the removal of contaminated food from countless store shelves across the country in 2016, preventing illnesses and protecting the public.

Dairy microbiology is just one of the specialty areas covered by staff at the New York Food Laboratory.
Dairy microbiology is just one of the specialty areas covered by staff at the New York State Food Laboratory.

Those 43 people — microbiologists, chemists and support staff at the New York State Food Laboratory — were crucial to the state being able to increase testing of food and beverage samples by 10 percent this past year, according to a report from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

“As one of the most sophisticated food laboratories in the nation, New York’s food testing capabilities help reduce the potential for foodborne illness, ensure food labels deliver what they promise, and make sure the rights of consumers are put first,” the governor said in the report.

The 10 percent increase, from 61,000 tests in 2015 to 67,000 in 2016, included more testing for health hazards, purity and accuracy of labeling using new more accurate techniques.

For the first time ever, in 2016, the state food laboratory implemented a DNA-based method to test fish for speciation. Correct species identification on labels is not only important for public health in terms of things such as food allergies but also for consumer and business financial health in terms of food fraud.

Other examples of how the New York food testing program protected people nationwide involved:

  • Olive oil testing to ensure that other, less expensive oils have not been added;
  • Low-fat product testing to ensure that products meet the standard for low-fat; and
  • Pet food testing to ensure that label claims, such as “8% protein,” are accurate.
Food chemists at the New York State Food Laboratory check for contaminates and purity.
Food chemists at the New York State Food Laboratory check for contaminates and purity.

Also in 2016, scientists at the food laboratory increased testing of imported foods, such as cheese and spices, with special attention on possible contamination. The lab processed 1,073 imported food samples in 2016 — a 28 percent increase from 2015.

The New York State Food Laboratory was one of the first laboratories in the country to test spices for improper use of materials that can have serious health consequences. In 2016, hundreds of spice samples were tested to identify unlabeled fillers, industrial dyes not approved for food products, and harmful contaminants such as lead.

Additionally, in 2016, the New York Department of Agriculture and Market’s Divisions of Food Safety and Inspection, and Milk Control and Dairy Services collected more 23,300 food, beverage and milk samples, an increase of 17 percent from last year. The majority of samples collected are part of routine public health programs, but many are in response to foodborne illness and outbreak investigations, consumer inquiries and other food-related investigations.

The food lab recently began using whole genome sequencing (WGS), which dramatically increases the ability to identify and investigate foodborne outbreaks. The lab is also a member of the national Food Emergency Response Network, and assists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention PulseNet network on outbreak investigations.

“Through the work of the staff at the New York State Food Laboratory, New York State is engaged in cutting-edge analysis that is not only helping to ensure the safety and quality of our food supply but also to advocate for more accurate and faster detection methodologies,” Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball said in the report.

“I’m proud to say that this year, not only did our department field staff collect more samples, but our scientists and staff at the laboratory also conducted more testing on food products received. Their level of technical expertise is respected across the country and is proving New York is a leader in food safety testing.”

The staff at the New York food lab also earned high praise from officials in other states and from federal agencies for their work in assisting with the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program and other projects that benefit people across the United States.

In addition to doing their jobs, the food lab staff also help other labs. Ruiqing Pamboukian, who is the program lead for the Food and Drug Administration’s  lab accreditation program, specifically thanked the New York food lab staff for participating in its mentoring program.

“As a mentor lab, they spent significant efforts helping their three mentee labs to achieve accreditation. Two of the mentee labs successfully achieved accreditation in 2016, while the third lab has scheduled on-site assessment recently,” said Pamboukian.

“Their laboratory best practices have been valued and shared with other laboratories in our group.”

Joe Corby, executive director of the Association of Food and Drugs Officials (AFDO), said an integrated food safety system would be impossible to achieve without people and programs like those found in the New York food lab.

“AFDO is especially impressed with the contributions of officials from New York Agriculture and Markets’ Food Lab who have volunteered their time on committees, workgroups, and other formalized efforts designed to help assure a safer food supply for all,” Corby said.

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