Test Program Protects Troops' Food, Water Supplies
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Aug. 31, 2004 Napoleon Bonaparte first noted that an Army moves on its stomach. But that Army isn't likely to do much moving -- except maybe to the latrine or hospital or worse -- if its chow happens to be infected with salmonella or E. coli or another food- or waterborne bacteria or pathogen.
Ensuring that doesn't happen is the job of the Defense Department's Veterinary Food Analysis and Diagnostic Laboratory here.
The lab analyzes food bound for troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world, as well as military dining facilities, commissaries, exchanges, clubs, and other outlets, to ensure it's free of pathogens, heavy metals and chemical contamination.
Army Col. Les Huck, the lab's director, said these threats could quickly put troops out of commission -- something he acknowledges terrorists understand and could easily take advantage of -- without proper safeguards.
It's not such a far-fetched notion. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration noted a "high likelihood" of a deliberate attack or accidental outbreak in the U.S. food supply that sickens a large number of people. The agency said the food supply is especially vulnerable to an attack due to the broad range of biological and chemical agents that can be used.
The FDA isn't the only federal agency raising concerns. Last fall, the FBI said terrorist manuals and documents recovered in Afghanistan specifically referred to two naturally occurring toxins -- nicotine, a substance found in tobacco that is toxic when ingested, and solanine, a toxic chemical found in small amounts in green potatoes that can cause gastrointestinal upset or neurological symptoms -- as potential poisons. Officials agree anthrax and ricin, two potentially lethal biological toxins, pose even more deadly threats.
Huck said the military is no less vulnerable to attack on its food and water supplies. It's particularly critical that the military ensure the safety of U.S. troops deployed outside the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency, which ensure the safety of U.S. food and water supplies.
"In places where there's not much oversight, we play a vital role in testing items that would otherwise go untested," he said.
As a result, the Fort Sam Houston veterinary lab, as well as its smaller counterpart at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, conduct hundreds of tests on samples of everything from Meals, Ready to Eat used in the field to poultry sold in commissaries to bottled water purchased locally for troops in Southwest Asia.
This testing reinforces measures already in place by procurement teams on the ground who regularly audit local vendors to ensure food and water for U.S. service members and their families is safe and secure.
Eric Shepherd, supervisor of chemistry here, said the changing nature of the threat has caused dramatic changes in the lab's mission. "When I came here 17 years ago, 80 percent of our work was quality control," he said. "Now, 80 percent of what we do is contaminant analysis. That's where our thrust is and where it will continue to be in the future."
Shepherd said the lab's rigorous test procedures send a message that the military is taking measures to protect its members against food- and waterborne threats. "If people know we are testing, then it serves as a deterrent," he said. "But if they do try something, we're confident that we can help detect it."
But, Huck said, the current system still isn't responsive enough. New equipment under development will make it easier for specially trained troops on the ground to do their own testing, with far faster results.
A wide range of test equipment and procedures is being developed, he said, and some are already being delivered to forward-based troops. The ultimate goal, Huck said, is to get enough "rapid screening process" capability into the field so troops can rapidly screen for pathogens and pull any suspect items from the inventory.
"The bottom line for us is to guard against contamination, whether it got there accidentally or intentionally, so we can ensure a safe and secure food product," Huck said.
Staci Mitchell, a microbiological lab technician here who also served as a technician at Veterinary Lab Europe in Landstuhl while on active duty, said the procedures in place "give me immense confidence in the safety of the food" the troops and their families receive.
Mitchell said the testing program "sends a strong message to the troops that they're being looked out for and taken care of."
"But then again," she said, "they're guarding our safety. So we want to be sure to guard theirs, too."