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Laboratory Services Division: Food safety superhero

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If you’ve ever seen the movie “Wall-E,” you might remember the premise that green, growing life is precious and rare. Once it has been lost, the impacts on human life are devastating. Beyond the obvious fact that food provides life, if we lose the connection to how food is cultivated, it can be easy to forget that crops and livestock are themselves living, breathing entities. This means that they can be just as affected by diseases or bacteria as humans can.

How crops are grown, their environmental factors and stressors, can all affect the overall health of the food system. As we better understand the environment that helps plants to grow (such as fertilizers, compost, and manure) we better understand how to keep them and ourselves as healthy as possible.

Two sets of small and medium labeled vials wait for samplesThe Laboratory Services Division of the Colorado Department of Agriculture is a unique example of an unseen and unsung hero of the agriculture industry. Just like a superhero, the Labs team helps prevent incidences of foodborne illness before they can impact the general population.

Their work behind the scenes is focused on protection. Promoting consumer health and safety requires a multifaceted approach involving surveillance, education, and cooperation among stakeholders to safeguard public wellbeing.

Consumers and producers alike often have no idea that the safety of their food and fiber - and themselves - is in the very capable hands of the scientists and technicians in all three of the CDA labs. Specifically, regulatory agencies like CDA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the USDA set standards and conduct testing to identify potential hazards and mitigate risks within the food supply chain.

While ranchers most likely know about the animal health lab, where lab staff offer testing services for regulatory animal diseases such as brucellosis and trichomoniasis, and law enforcement certainly is aware of the metrology lab, which calibrates lidar technology used in speed guns, the biochemistry lab is in the business of consumers. And they’re not picky about whether that’s a human or an animal consumer. They just want to ensure that, whether human or animal, safety is paramount.

Person in blue gloves and white lab coat uses a large pipette to transfer clear liquid into two small beakers

The biochemistry lab tests regulated products submitted by other CDA programs, such as the Inspection and Consumer Services Division or through federal cooperative agreement programs with FDA and USDA. What they’re testing is very likely to be something that you use in your daily life. At home, in restaurants, and in food handling facilities, food safety measures should be implemented to prevent contamination, foodborne illnesses, and ensure the quality of food products. This involves proper handling, storage, and preparation of food, as well as monitoring the food supply chain from farm to table through entities like the CDA laboratories.

Product labeling for animal food is another major area of priority for CDA’s regulatory eye. Clear and accurate labeling is essential for informing consumers about the contents, nutritional value, and potential allergens or hazards associated with products that they are giving to their animals. If the listed ingredients are not accurate, there can be serious, even fatal consequences.

Kristi McCallum has been a microbiologist for more than 25 years and has supervised the biochemistry lab for the past five. She is passionate about promoting consumer understanding of how to keep ourselves and our products as safe and healthy as possible.

Kristi summed up the feelings of many people who work for the Laboratory Services Division.

"The staff working at BCL are dedicated to providing quality data to enhance the CDA and federal programs in a collaborative effort to help ensure a safe and nutritious food supply for humans and animals,” Kristi said. “As consumers ourselves, we make protecting public and animal health our number one priority because a safe food supply means better health for everyone."

Lab director Kristi McCallum points at instruments used by the microbiology lab

The biochemistry lab provides data to regulatory programs that is used to monitor the safety and nutritional content of food as well as to remove adulterated or mislabeled human and animal food from the marketplace. Consumers have the right to food that is clearly labeled and provides a complete list of ingredients, to prevent illness. Consumers who understand their health and safety risks can make informed decisions and take necessary precautions when it comes to food safety.

If you have or know anyone with even a slight food allergy, you understand how it feels when something isn’t sitting right. Magnify that into a potential for ingesting pathogens that can cause illness, or even death, and you can see why the Laboratory Services Division is a vital service for both humans and their animals. Doing their job well, you never even know they are there. Just like a superhero.

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