ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) – Tucked away in a nondescript state office park, scientists at the New York State Food Laboratory have for years quietly gone about their business testing products destined for grocery store shelves.
The obscurity, however, ended abruptly last week as the lab, with 10 of its researchers on the case, made a crucial breakthrough in the testing of pet food believed to be responsible for animal deaths across the country. Using sophisticated drug screening panels, the lab determined a banned rodent poison called aminopterin might be killing the household pets.
The lab is part of Food Emergency Response Network, a federally supported group of state and federal facilities with expertise in testing food for chemical, biological, and radiological hazards. With a staff of about 40 chemists, microbiologists and technicians, the lab is one of a few dozen state-level facilities capable of doing such tests and regularly screens foods for pesticides.
Unable to pinpoint what was wrong with the pet food with their own equipment, scientists at Cornell University sent samples of the tainted pet food to Albany. Chemists here quickly got to work, three days before a nationwide recall of 95 pet food brands manufactured by Menu Foods of Ontario, Canada. Numerous tests eliminated hundreds of possibilities, from heavy metals to deadly fungus.
In a matter of days, the researchers zeroed in on aminopterin, a derivative of folic acid that was once used to induce abortions and is also used in cancer research. It can cause cancer and birth defects in humans and kidney damage in dogs and cats.
‘We brought about 100 years of combined expertise to bear on this,’ said lab Director Daniel Rice. ‘Trouble shooting with each other was a real asset in this case.’
Scientists here have long gone about their business with little fanfare, analyzing about 20,000 samples a year in a facility that looks more like a high school chemistry lab than cutting edge workplace. The lab has been around for decades, but became part of FERN after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as part of the government’s effort to protect the nation’s animals and food supply.
Now the lab’s scientists have gotten more attention than they bargained for.
‘It’s been very stressful,’ said Virginia Greene, an associate food chemist. ‘We were triple checking our methodology. There are some skeptics and we have to fend them off. … When you have a result like this, it starts casting more doubt than enthusiasm. It’s bizarre how science works like that.’
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