One of the jobs of the World Health Organization is to set the global standard for food safety. The United States follows that standard, and it's the job of the Food and Drug Administration to monitor the food supply for toxins and other contaminants. The FDA surveillance team includes scientists, dieticians, inspectors… and a group of retirees in a church kitchen.
The women's group of the United Methodist church in Belton, Missouri unpacks the boxes of food that have been delivered from Cincinnati, Chicago and Detroit. They fire up a wall of ovens and cooking range and the church kitchen comes to life.
"They have lamb chops, pork chops, sausage, catfish, liver, she's working on the liver over in the corner. All of that has to be fried. Then we have bacon, and I would say, oh 10 pounds or 15 pounds of bacon. We put that in the oven," explains Faye Wallace.
This morning, as they do several times a year, Ms. Wallace and about 20 of her friends are cooking enough food to feed several congregations. The women deftly avoid running into each other, as they heft pans of cooked salmon and bacon into the air. Coffee's brewing in one corner, and a pair of women cut turnips at a folding table on the other side of the cramped, hot kitchen. All this activity isn't for a picnic or a social. In fact, no one will eat this food. Instead, it's bound for the FDA laboratory in the suburbs of Kansas City.
Here, the salmon, bacon, liver and turnips are all blended into an unappetizing liquid form. Scientists at this lab and others across the United States test the liquid food for nutritional value, and also for some 300 different contaminants. Every few months, The FDA picks several U.S. cities at random, sends employees shopping for a $3,000 list of groceries in each city and ships everything to this lab for processing. Kevin Kline, who coordinates the Total Diet Study, says the idea is to collect a representative sample of what Americans buy in the supermarket.
"They just go and buy the stuff off the shelf," explains Mr. Kline. "Like they would for their families. We don't tell 'em what brand to buy… it can be a top of the line, it can be the cheapest they can find."
Government scientists have been studying the food Americans eat since the 1960s. FDA district director Bill Sedgwick says it's a matter of protecting the public.
"Food is food is food," he says. "The question is does it have pesticides and heavy metals it shouldn't have? And what I can tell you, we find, our supply is good. Our food supply is a good one."
But occasionally, FDA scientists do find something of concern… such as the toxic chemical, PCB. Chemist Chris Sack remembers a test on a box of shredded wheat cereal years ago.
"That was before they actually packaged the shredded wheat inside of a package inside of a box," he says. "And I remember watching the esteemed experts then tearing apart the box and letting the solvent pass over it because we were trying to figure out where these PCBs were coming from. They were using PCBs in paper production."
And because of that finding, cereal producers are now required to package their products in plastic bags inside the box. The FDA searches for pesticides and other contaminants at levels far below the World Health Organization's standards. Using an arsenal of glassware, blenders and burners, its scientists break down the most common foods into chemical roots to search for ingredients that shouldn't be there. They've found illegal pesticides and other harmful chemicals which could have hurt consumers; such as insecticide in baby teething biscuits, and traces of packaging glue in potato chips. Most of the food the scientists test are staples of the American diet, and to get an idea of how most Americans cook their food, they turn to the United Methodist Women's group in Belton.
The women say their culinary relationship with the FDA is a way for them to find fellowship and raise funds for their church. They're paid $2,000 a year for their efforts… money that helped furnish a new kitchen… and a new church building in this community just south of Kansas City. And while the women laugh and chat, Faye Wallace says they're mindful of the seriousness of the job.
"I'm sure though it's being tested, so that's what's important for our diets, that it's being tested… it's protecting all of us."
The testing regimen protects enough Americans that FDA officials say they've been asked to help other countries set up similar Total Diet Studies, which could open the door for other groups looking for a unique form of public service, and fellowship, in the years to come.