CSI: Dinner Table
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
It was not normal for a service at Calvary Baptist Church in Darien, Conn., to end with a 911 call.
But then again, the burning sensation the parishioners felt as they sipped their communion grape juice wasn't normal, either.
"As soon as we drank it, we knew something was wrong," said the Rev. Anthony Gibson, the church's pastor.
The congregants called the police. The police called the grape juice company. And the grape juice company called a team of forensic scientists that specializes in fishing clues from fillets and prying confessions from tomato cans.
The 22 chemists, microbiologists and food science experts work for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a Washington trade group that represents food companies such as Kraft Foods, Campbell Soup and General Mills.
GMA's members turn to the group's in-house forensics experts when they receive a complaint about an eyelash in a pot pie or a bug in a can of stew. The team of scientists, led by lab director Jeffrey Barach and GMA senior counsel David J. Herman, are tasked with figuring out whether the company is dealing with a prank, an innocent mistake, a production error or sabotage.
"It really is like CSI trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together," Herman said, referring to the hit television show about crime-scene investigators.
Unlike law enforcement, however, the lab is not interested as much in who is to blame as in what happened so the company can try to prevent it from happening again. It may have to repair a machine. It may have to call the police. Or it may simply need to send the customer a coupon.
In the 2006 grape juice case, no one else who drank juice made from the same batch as the tainted bottle fell ill. That led GMA's forensic scientists to suspect that someone had tampered with the juice after it was sealed. The burning sensation the congregants reported made them think lye or acid had been added.
The congregants had also said the juice tasted like soap. The sample had foam and a perfume-like smell. Tests revealed that it contained dishwashing detergent. Comparing it to samples of detergent sold in the area, the lab was able to narrow down the likely brands. It turned its results over to the company.
Police independently reached the same conclusions based on analyses by the Connecticut Forensic Laboratory and the Connecticut Toxicology Laboratory, according to Capt. Fred Komm of the Darien Police Department. They eventually arrested an employee at the store where the church bought the communion juice.
If having a team of scientists on call sounds like an unusual perk for a food industry trade group to offer, it is. The lab is a vestige of GMA's history, which dates to the start of the National Canners Association in 1907. At the time, canning was much less consistent than it is today, and people contracted botulism from eating food that was not properly sealed. The lab was set up to identify what wasn't working and to come up with better methods. It gradually developed an expertise in food forensics. When NCA later became the Food Products Association, which in turn merged with GMA in 2007, the lab became part of GMA.