Faces in the Field: Food safety screening work employs CSI-like tools

by | May 7, 2009

We have a diverse workforce here at the NCDA&CS that focuses on consumer protection, food safety, agricultural marketing, accuracy of weights and measures, plant conservation, livestock protection…and more. Once a month, we’ll talk to one of our employees and provide a behind-the-scenes look at what they do to serve North Carolina.

With their mix of hi-tech crime fighting tools and sensational storylines, crime-solving dramas are hugely popular on television.

Danny Culberson, a 24 -year veteran of the of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Food and Drug Protection Division residue lab, finds the content entertaining, but marvels at how many jobs the detectives are involved in and how the hi-tech tools can help investigators wrap up the case and nab the suspect in under an hour (not counting commercials).

That’s how it is on TV, but in real life, Culberson explains, it is much different.

As a Chemist III with the department, Culberson uses some of the same equipment to analyze samples for pesticide residues in food and animal feed products that Horatio Caine and Calleigh Duquesne use to solve crimes on “CSI Miami.” Like the TV characters, he works with a mass spectrometer to analyze the ion fragments of molecules. But, just to be clear, he doesn’t collect the samples from the field, dust for fingerprints AND go out in pursuit of bad guys in his day-to-day duties.

Even with the computerized and automated improvements in equipment, testing in real life is more involved than it is on TV.

Culberson, 51, graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial chemistry from the University of North Alabama. Over the years, he has seen many changes in the way samples are processed. Previously, he manually extracted samples to analyze from containers. Today that process is automated, allowing Culberson to focus on setting up the parameters of the tests and interpreting the data collected through the process.

This has enabled the lab to test more samples and reduce the cost of materials needed for sampling.

Sampling food products is very important to food safety, particularly since food is now manufactured and shipped from all over the world, including countries that may not have the same growing standards as the United States.

Check out the video to see Culberson talking about his work and interest in science.