Testing for Food Contamination: Looking at the Whole Picture

“…No officer…I got high at my company pitch-in dinner” The case of THC-laced BBQ sauce

There are several things that are required to happen to get that steak on your plate. There must be a healthy cow; the cow needs acceptable food and must be processed in a hygienic manner. That steak must be packaged in a clean environment with acceptable packaging, remain at the correct temperature, and be timely transferred to the store. Once purchased, the steak must be stored and prepared properly before it’s served. There is an opportunity for a person to identify when something has been mis-handled, contaminated, or compromised quality at each of these steps as well at the numerous smaller steps in between.

When investigating an allegation of contaminated food, it’s important to consider the entire industry, including sourcing, supply chain, and preparation. It is also important to consider if there is an alleged health complaint and the circumstances surrounding it, as well. Through this broad lens, an investigation can address the immediate issue as well as uncover underlying issues along the way.

At Rimkus, we have tackled numerous types food-related claims (including those that contain THC-laced BBQ sauce). Generally, the claims take the forms of physical contamination (screw or another hard object found in the prepared food), pathogen (salmonella or vibrio contamination), and processing issues in the source material or food.

“There’s a screw in my taco that just broke my tooth”…Whose screw is it, anyway?

Contamination cases can be deceivingly simple at first but can get complicated very quickly. For example, many of these cases start with, “they are claiming they broke a tooth and we need to know what is in there.” If we have the material, we can look at it to identify its material, but what if it’s soft? Have you considered looking into the person’s past dental history? These are also cases where we try to identify the source of the material as well. For example, identify the materials of the screw may help identify if it came from a piece of equipment in the restaurant or someplace else. Good recordkeeping of food supply is essential for completing the best traceback procedure to identify exactly from where the contaminant came. This allows for the client to consider changes in supplier or even subrogation.

“I ate here two days ago and your food gave me salmonella” Can we see your Dr.’s note?

When a pathogen is involved, Rimkus may delve into our toxicology and microbiology expertise right away. The symptoms of many pathogens are similar to common illnesses such as the flu, and a medical records review may be a way to understand if the diagnosis is consistent with the allegations.

Dead ends in the plumbing – slow flow allows for microbes to grow

Processing issues can be numerous, including improperly operating equipment, poorly designed plumbing, and operator failure. If there was a problem with the food on the plate, it may have originated at the plant and not in the pot. Many of these plants are processing pounds or tons of material each hour, and early detection of an issue may save millions of dollars in losses.

“May we have your plate?

One of the limiting factors in most food contamination investigations is that we do not have the alleged contaminated materials. They tend to be thrown away or lost. Over the years we have seen our clients address this issue through manager and employee training and education. Just training an employee to simply ask for the material and store it goes a long way in providing an opinion with high confidence. There are even better next steps to take to get better training and optimize these storage conditions so that we have the best available data.

There are several areas that we see from our viewpoint that could be optimized in the industry overall, but here are the top three: 1) training of all employees at each stage of the supply and preparation step to be vigilant in identifying potential contamination or issues; 2) global training for proper storage and transfer of the alleged contaminated food; and 3) proper record keeping to complete a traceback investigation for potential subrogation.

In summary, testing for food contamination can go down numerous avenues to get to the truth of the matter. Having the best information through collection of evidence and recordkeeping goes a long way in advancing the investigation.


Carla Kinslow, Ph. D.
Director of Toxicology and Food Safety

Dr. Kinslow holds a doctorate in Biomedical Sciences, Cell Biology/Molecular Toxicology with over 31 years of biomedical, regulatory, and environmental experience.

She has expertise in inhalation and oral toxicology; derivation of regulatory screening values for oral and inhalation exposure, toxicogenomics; toxicological risk assessment and communication of such risk to diverse stakeholders; human health impacts analysis from emission events; air, soil, and water monitoring data; modeling data related to ambient air and drinking water quality; water contamination from oil and gas operations; and stakeholder communication.

She specializes in risk-based evaluation of air, soil, and groundwater toxicology under the USEPA, as well as state and federal guidelines. She has served as manager for various regulatory projects where she helped design and implement air monitoring networks, groundwater monitoring projects, and remediation scopes, with subsequent assessment and communication of such human health impacts based on collected data. She has extensive experience in the evaluation of drug and alcohol impairment and “DRAM” shop cases.

Dr. Kinslow also has extensive experience in the evaluation of pesticide/herbicide overspray cases as well as health risks based on genetic predisposition to disease from environmental, occupational, and pharmaceutical exposures. Notably, Dr. Kinslow is also an environmental microbiologist and regularly conducts indoor air quality mold investigations and beer contamination evaluations.

Rimkus Consulting Group

Rimkus Consulting Group, Inc. is a worldwide provider of forensic consulting and technical services to corporations, insurance companies, law firms, and government agencies. Rimkus assists clients in the responsive and timely resolution of claims and disputes, as well as restoration design services, facilities risk assessments, and due diligence property condition assessments. For more than 35 years, the company’s team of professional engineers, architects, scientists, and technical specialists has been recognized for its commitment to service excellence by local, national, and international business communities. Rimkus operates more than 95 offices across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. For more information, visit www.rimkus.com.

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