Food safetyThe U.S. Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) tries to keep food safe

Published 15 August 2013

The U.S. Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) has 172 laboratories, including 39 federal, 113 state, and 17 local labs across the states and Puerto Rico. Randy Layton, FERN director, discussed the agency’s work in a July meeting of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP).

The International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) held its annual meeting in July at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The annual event offers attendees and members information on current and emerging food safety issues, the latest science, innovative solutions to new and recurring problems, and the opportunity to network with thousands of food safety professionals from around the globe.

Food Safety News reports that this year, Randy Layton, the director of the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN), discussed some of the organization’s abilities and accomplishments in a presentation entitled “FERN: Federal and State Laboratories Working Together to Improve Food Defense.” In recent years, FERN, a network of laboratories designed quickly to respond to biological, chemical, and radiological contamination of food, has helped federal and state health officials investigate foodborne illness outbreaks and other food safety concerns. FERN helped authorities test spinach during the 2006 E. coli outbreak, in addition to seafood during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Managed by the U.S Department of Agriculture and the U.S Food and Drug Administration, FERN focuses on prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. The network currently has 172 laboratories, including 39 federal, 113 state, and 17 local labs across the states and Puerto Rico. FERN labs specialize in one or multiple disciplines, with 133 labs providing microbiological support, 111 specializing in chemical contaminants, and 36 able to perform radiochemistry testing. More than 600 people have been trained rapidly to test pathogens and other contaminates though FERN’s six training centers around the nation.

FERN accomplishments include the discovery of the source of the 2008 Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, which was the second-largest in U.S. history. The outbreak, which directly affected more than 1,400 people, was suspected to have derived from tomatoes, but through work by FERN laboratories, was traced to jalapeño peppers imported from Mexico. FERN laboratories also monitored samples of marine life after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill contaminated the Gulf with unsafe levels of hydrocarbons. During the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, FERN’s radiology labs assessed the capability of gamma-emitting radionuclides, in addition to providing reagents and other supplies to labs in need. With recent success in prevention and detection, the network continues to expand through its accreditation to more labs.