An employee first noticed that the orange chicken on the Hot Wok section of the supermarket food bar had some kind of milky white liquid in it. Meanwhile, a 12-year-old boy had been hospitalized after eating at another self-serve food bar in the same shopping center.
The South Lake Tahoe police rushed to the scene and, with the FBI, began an investigation to identify the culprit. Identifying the substance was a job for local, state, and federal health officials, who also helped law enforcement trace whether foods at other nearby locations had been contaminated.
“This is a perfect example of the benefit of Food Protection Rapid Response Teams (RRT),” said Mike Needham, chief of the emergency response unit of the California Department of Public Health. Needham was referring to the FDA-sponsored RRT network created to effectively respond to multi-jurisdictional food and feed emergencies.
“Being part of RRT ensured we already had the training, a familiar network for coordinating the response, and shared resources,” Needham added.
California is one of 21 states that are part of the FDA-sponsored RRT. The RRT program began in 2008 in six pilot states. Currently 19 states are funded by grants from FDA’s Office of Partnerships (OP), and two additional states have developed RRTs without federal funding. In 2016 alone, RRTs investigated 387 incidents involving, for example, outbreaks of Listeria, Salmonella, and Ciguatera fish poisoning in localities throughout the nation.
In the intentional poisoning case in Lake Tahoe, which began in November 2016, Needham and his team collected samples of possibly contaminated foods, along with control samples, and initially sent them to state labs. Needham noted that food testing is generally difficult because food comes in infinite varieties of fresh, liquid, solid, canned, and frozen. This case was further complicated by not knowing what contaminate was used. (Four illnesses were connected to the two food outlets.) In complex cases like these, RRTs can provide valuable technical assistance to local health agencies.
Although the state has labs and the FBI has access to Department of Justice labs, the response team quickly decided that the FDA labs should step in, because of the agency’s vast experience with food, and because this appeared to be a criminal case. FDA lab certifications and validated processes provide the confidence essential in court proceedings.
“Coordination among the labs was critical; that’s one of the goals of the RRT cooperative agreement,” said Needham. “There were no turf wars; the only question was what lab was the best fit for handling the samples to get the results we needed, including standing up in a court of law.”
Currently, a suspect in the case is being held in lieu of a $300,000 bond as he awaits trial for felony charges of intentionally poisoning food.
Although RRT grants currently are not available for additional states, states are welcome to get involved immediately. City and county health departments can contact the RRT in their state or the Office of Partnerships to learn how these programs provide benefits at the local level.
“There is a lot we can offer, even to states we can’t currently fund,” said Brett Weed, a project officer in FDA’s Office of Partnerships. “This includes multiple resources, for example, a best practices manual, access to Standard Operating Procedures, a network of professional colleagues, and opportunities to learn from the experiences of other states.”
Health officials should find the best contact for their area at the Division of Partnership Investments and Agreements.