Food Microbiologist at Work

When Peggy McNult of the NRCM mentioned that she had never profiled a microbiologist in the Department of Agriculture, I jumped at the opportunity to showcase a little known side of microbiology, namely food microbiology, in addition to presenting my profile.

I supervise the microbiology section of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Consumer Analytical Laboratory (CAL) which is the regulatory laboratory for the State of Ohio. It analyzes products collected by the Meat, Food, and Dairy divisions’ state inspectors.

I joined CAL in 2000 as a Microbiologist, after graduating from The Ohio State University with a Master’s degree in Food Science and Technology. The valuable laboratory experience that I gained while conducting graduate research on E.coli O157: H7, as well as my deep interest in developing and validating rapid methods for various food matrices, prompted me to seek employment in a laboratory environment. The food analysis/testing at CAL, being regulatory in nature, provided the perfect environment to utilize my proficiency in validating methods in order to ensure that they meet Association of Analytical Communities (AOAC), USDA or FDA standards.

Currently, I supervise a staff of 11 microbiologists at CAL. I ensure that my team undergoes periodic job-rotations which allow them to enhance their skill sets and also be cross-trained in all sections of the laboratory. My team is responsible for testing produce/food samples for Salmonella sp, E.coli O157: H7, Listeria sp., Shigella sp. and other food-borne pathogens. Dairy products are tested for total microbial counts, coliforms, alkaline phosphatase and for trace amounts of antibiotics. In case of a food borne outbreak, CAL microbiologists test suspect food samples following USDA or FDA guidelines. Positive testing outcomes lead to a recall of the “tainted” food from retail markets within the state. The laboratory is also a part of several Federal Cooperative Agreements, such as the USDA Microbiological Data Program (MDP)--to test produce samples for pathogens; Food Emergency Response Network (FERN)--to conduct validation studies to improve detection methods for biothreat agents in food; and a program in conjunction with the EPA to test the efficacy of hospital disinfectants based on their label claims.

This year has been a very interesting albeit challenging one at CAL since food safety has garnered so much national media attention. The increased consumption of imported food products and the threat of intentional biological agents in the nation’s food supply have made food testing a top priority in the Departments of Agriculture. This has resulted in increased testing at laboratories such as CAL. However, new and improved detection methods and the use of molecular methodologies have resulted in generating more accurate and quicker results.

Maya Achen, RM(NRCM), Microbiology Supervisor, Consumer Analytical Laboratory, Ohio Department of Agriculture; she achieved her NRCM certification in 2006.

Copyright© National Registry of Certified Microbiologists. Reprinted from The Loop, 2009, Issue 1.