Unless you don’t eat, our flagship episode covers a topic that affects us all—food defense. This wide-ranging and enthralling episode, hosted by S&T’s John Verrico, features Jessica Cox, Program Manager for Chemical Threat Characterization at the Chemical Security Analysis Center. Jessica kicks off the first season of the podcast, delving into food safety vs. food defense (hint: they aren’t the same thing). Tune in to learn how S&T fits into the picture of securing the nation’s food supply, and how terrorism, con artists and even domestic disputes can pose threats in ways you wouldn’t expect. Thinking about a future career in science? Jessica also shares her backstory, how she went from a Division I college athlete to a top-level scientist, and her advice to young women who feel intimidated breaking into a traditionally male realm.
Guest: Jessica Cox, Program Manager for Chemical Threat and Chemical Hazard Characterization in the Chemical Security Analysis Center
Host: John Verrico, Chief of Media & Community Relations
[00:00:00] John Verrico: Hi, I'm John Verrico and I work for the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, or S&T as we call it. Join me and meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe. This is Technologically Speaking. Welcome to this episode of Technologically Speaking. I'm your host for today, John Verrico and I'm joined by Jessica Cox Program Manager for Chemical Threat and Chemical Hazard Characterization in the Chemical Security Analysis Center here at the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate. For today's discussion, we're going to be talking about food defense. And welcome Jessica, so glad you're able to join us.
[00:00:44] Jessica Cox: Hi, thanks for having me on the show!
[00:00:46] Verrico: So, I wanted to learn a little bit about you. So, tell me, how did you wind up in the science field?
[00:00:55-00:00:3:20] Cox: So that is, that's a good question. So initially when I was growing up, right, you have these dreams of like becoming a doctor, like all the other kids in the world. And I really did want to become a doctor, but as I got into it, I started getting into more sports, kind of, therapy and sports medicine. And I really liked that, but I was also a Division I college athlete and those two didn't mesh very well. So I ended up doing my degree in chemistry, but I decided I really wanted to do applied chemistry, not research. And so with that, I decided that it would be really nice to use it, to put criminals away. And I'm going to show my age a little bit here. Right? Forensics was not a thing, so I decided to combine my chemistry degree with criminal justice and forensics type classes, so that I could end up coming out with a sociology degree, with a hard science chemistry degree. So, I could mesh them kind of together and end up in the law enforcement field—is where I thought I was going to end up. I did start initially there and had some work, working with a forensic archeologist, which I loved digging up bones. And when they found bones, we would determine whether they were human or if they were animals. And then we would pass that information over to the police officers for their law enforcement cases. From there, I ended up in the drug chemistry lab doing cases, for chemistry, for the law enforcement of drugs. And so I ended up coming out here and taking a position at Aberdeen Proving Ground, I ended up in the Chemical Warfare Agent Laboratory. And, what happened then was I decided that I wanted to start a family and I couldn't be in the laboratory and so, I transitioned out of the laboratory and into risk assessment work. And that's how I landed with, the detail over to Department of Homeland Security, helping them establish and continue their Chemical Terrorism Risk Assessment program. And so it was a really good fit. And I have been there doing the risk assessment work since 2007. And now transitioning back into managing laboratory analysis to fill some of the gaps that we have found, through that risk assessment and through planning and preparedness efforts. What we don't know about some of these hazards and threats that are upon our nation so that we can, be ahead of the game.
[00:03:20-00:03:43] Verrico: I do want to talk about what you're working on now. And specifically, your work in food defense. This is something that really makes a difference for people in their everyday lives. Let's kind of start off with talking about food defense and what does that actually mean? And what's the difference between food safety, you hear food security, and you hear food defense. What's the difference between those?
[00:03:43-00:04:38] Cox: All right. So, this is a big space, but I'll try to be as concise as possible here. So, the whole space of food safety and food defense really spans on the difference between unintentional and intentional acts on the food supply. So, in the unintentional realm, you got your food quality, which is your, spoilage or deterioration. You got your food safety, which is unintentional contamination by ingredients that aren't supposed to be there, organisms or processing failures. That's your food safety and that's unintentionally happening. You're on your intentional side, you got your food fraud, which is purely done for economic gain where you can, dilute it or substitute a product and sell it for the more expensive product, um, instead. And then you have your food defense, which again, it's an intentional contamination with a purposeful adulteration with intent to harm the consumer.
[00:04:38] Verrico: So, let me ask you this then, how big of a problem is this whole, you know, this whole issue of tainted food, whether it be intentional or unintentional?
[00:04:48-00:05:34] Cox: So, this is a tricky question because it is a problem and can be a problem and could be a really big problem if we weren't doing as much as we do in this space here. But for, you know, food for thought here, if you combined all of the unintentional and intentional, food fatalities that could occur, or that do occur, they greatly out rank the number of deaths that we see from air or rail accidents, in our world today. So, that should put it in perspective, right? We hear about planes when they crash and the people that die. And we hear when the trains derail, but very few people hear about all the food poisonings or the intentional contamination events that have happened that have caused people to end up in the hospital or sick or dead.
[00:05:34-00:06:19] Verrico: You're right. We don't hear about this kind of stuff. Wow. That is a staggering figure. I never realized that that was happening quite that often. When one of these incidents happens in the real world, I know your involvement is that you'll be working with the law enforcement and the investigators and all that stuff to learn about what had transpired there. You'll then go into the laboratory and study the incident, kind of trying to replicate everything that happened and look for all of those, you know, places where there could have been, some mitigation efforts. And, so now once you've looked at what has transpired and you've learned everything you can about the compounds that were used and how they were used, then what do you do with that information? How does that go back out to the practical world?
[00:06:19-00:07:38] Cox: So, so it's accidental, intentional and criminal food adulteration incidents occur routinely, right? And you may not hear about them, but they're occurring. And these incidents really provide kind of case scenarios for future intentional adulteration events. And, they also draw attention to the impacts and the toxicities of the compounds for other bad actors or terrorists or disgruntled employees or whoever else that would like to cause some harm. Right? So, what we do is we try to learn from each one of these incidences. We work with the stakeholders like the law enforcement, guys in USDA and FDA. And to get as much data as we can, when one of these events happen. We take that in, we use it to inform our models, and our risk assessments and as well as our laboratory work. So then on the back end, after we do all of this assessment and we've taken in this new data from these different cases. That really allows us to then take that back out to the community at large, through our planning, through our training and interactions with industry to share that, so that they can plan and prepare for future events. And so if something doesn't seem right, they can get ahead of the game, be able to respond more effectively and then save lives on the back end.
[00:07:38] Verrico: So how big of a problem is this with intentional adulteration of food, with the intent to cause harm? How, you know, how common is this and how big of a challenge is it for us?
[00:07:51-00:09:39] Cox: Every year there are several, hundreds of incidences that happen. Some of them are small meaning that someone, poisoned a food product and gave it to their spouse, trying to knock their spouse off. And so it's a law enforcement event. Others are disgruntled employees that have—or other bad actors—I won't just say disgruntled employees, but, other bad actors that have gotten into, and to have the ability to actually put some kind of contaminant within, either the transportation part of the, part of the process or the actual processing of the food. And so what you'll see that, and sometimes these will come out, you'll see law enforcement, you'll see some media campaigns on these. There was an incident where a lady picked up sand on her way into the chicken plant and threw it into the chicken processing. And so, they had to recall thousands and thousands of pounds of chicken that had been processed because it had little grains of sand in it. Right. Not going to kill us. Someone might break a tooth on it. But it was still intentionally, put in there to cause some kind of harm or damage. And so that, that was in there, but like I said, it's, it is a problem and it does happen and there are vulnerabilities, you know, in this area. But the good thing is the food industry and USDA and FDA and the other federal agencies, including DHS, do a great job, protecting the food supply. You know, the industries are last line of defense, but it's also our first line of defense. They have true ownership and, of their food products. And they don't want anybody to come back and say their food product doesn't taste right or has hurt somebody or caused any kind of harm. And so they do a great job, on that front end of the processing to try to prevent that from happening.
[00:09:39] Verrico: Excellent. So, so tell me now, how does your work here at S&T contribute to the whole food defense?
[00:09:47-13:26] Cox: So here at S&T we do a handful of things. I'll talk about specifically what my group does, which we spend a lot of our time on risk assessment and food defense modeling and laboratory experiments to help us understand, ingestion threats and things that could pose a problem if they get into the food supply. We're looking at the, what could the chemical contaminants be that could get into our food supply and cause a problem. So, I'm looking at that foundational work. And then if it can get into our food supply, what does that look like? Does it change the taste, smell or texture of those food products and will it make it to the consumer? And if it makes it to the consumer, how many casualties, injuries, fatalities will it cause if it's consumed? And so those three pieces are what I, our work here at DHS S&T for CSAC and the Chemical Threat and Hazard Characterization programs does. We're looking at that baseline research of what are those chemicals. There are, I mean, thousands upon thousands of chemicals that are toxic, that we use every day in our life. So what are those chemicals, those toxic chemicals that we need to focus on? I can't spend hundreds upon hundreds of hours looking at 385,000 toxic chemicals, I've got to prioritize and down select from that. And so we've ran a couple of analysis where we've taken all of those foods that we eat in America and all of the potential chemicals and based on their characteristics and their traits, you know, how stable it is, how what's their toxicity. how soluble is it? Can it get into a food product? All of those chemicals terms, right? And we look at that and we prioritize to say which ones are going to be a problem. And from a huge laundry list, we can then focus down to a smaller chunk of those chemicals. And so that list is what we focus our laboratory, the next piece on. So, we've prioritized all the chemicals and the foods that we eat. And now I've taken it into the laboratory and we start testing, those particular threat agents, in the particular food products that we're looking at. And we see is it soluble? How long does it last? Can you consume a toxic amount in one bite, in five bites, in a serving? What does it look like? And all of that data then gets funneled into our modeling side of things, where we have food defense models made for all of the food products, which includes a ton of data. And that was, this was a huge effort with industry, FDA, USDA, where we were able to get very specific processing data from the industry, mitigation and vulnerability points through USDA and FDA's, threat assessments that they put together. We're able to combine all that and build these wonderful consequence models that really depicts how our foods are handled from the processing point all the way through to consumption. It includes, recall, and mitigation and treatment on the backside of it. So with that, those models can then be used to put these, this new data in, run scenarios and be able to inform and say, these are the scenarios that are the highest risks scenarios that we need to be educating and working with USDA, FDA, and industry to really promote mitigation and, and resiliency against contamination for these types of scenarios and these types of compounds.
[00:13:26] Verrico: Great. So just want to ask this, have there been any, have you found any surprises in your research?
[00:13:33-00:14:26] Cox: We absolutely find surprises all the time. We have failed experiments where, you know, our hypothesis is proven completely wrong. And so one of, you know, a good example of this is we had one compound, that. But the baseline data that we knew about that compound said that it would be a really high-risk compound for putting into the food supply and causing mass casualties on the back end if it was consumed. And, when we took that into the laboratory based off of those, that theory, and the hypothesis that we'd made based on those chemical and physical properties of what we knew of that compound, we took it into the laboratory and could not get it to go into any food product that we tried. It was not soluble enough. It was not stable enough. It did not. It did not stick around in it. And the amount that we could get in, we could not get a consumption that would cause a lethality, on the backend.
[00:14:26] Verrico: That was good.
[00:14:27] Cox: Yeah, so it took one of the, one of the top hazards off the table because now we've tested it in the laboratory and can say, no, it's really not a concern.
[00:14:35] Verrico: Because it wasn't practical.
[00:14:37] Cox: Correct.
[00:14:38] Verrico: Right. Okay. So, so are there any, other some real-world examples that you can share of where, there's been a significant impact from your findings?
[00:14:48-00:15:34] Cox: I know you guys want to hear about like actual law enforcement cases, and the fun stuff. Right. But those actually have less of an impact. We see them happen. The FBI, we get to provide, support, modeling support to them. They have a case that can't be talked about, but they may come and say, Hey, how about this scenario? How would it play out? And what other chemicals should we be looking for in this case? And we can then provide the subject matter experts to fill in some of the gaps for that incident. Now there has been cases that have happened since the inception of time poisonings have been happening. Right? So, you can go all the way back to medieval times where…
[00:15:34] Verrico: The food tasters in the Queen's court.
[00:15:37] Cox: Exactly, right? So, this is not a new thing. This is, this has been going on for years and years and years. It's just getting more advanced and a little bit more elaborate, right? The way that it can happen. And so, with that, let's see a couple of cases that I can highlight. We have incidences, so like the arsenic and the metals back in the ancient times, that's kind of where it started. People would put arsenic or heavy metals into the liquids, and that's why those taste testers were there. So the king and queen didn't end up dead.
[00:16:12] Verrico: Now I know that, there was, an incident that you might be able to refer to the, had something to do with, I dunno, it was, maybe a lovers spat and salsa at a restaurant.
[00:16:23-00:17:31] Cox: Yeah. So that's the 2009, methomyl contamination event that occurred. And that was, you know, disgruntled employees and different things going on. And I don't recall all of the details at the moment, but, in, in how it played out was, methomyl ended up getting put into the salsa. But it took the law enforcement and the owners and operators of the restaurant. It took the incident occurring twice before they were able to find the perpetrator. And it caused quite a few injuries where people were falling very sick at the table at the restaurant. But it, the key there is, it didn't happen only once it was actually happened twice before they were able to catch it. So you have two times the number of consequences and casualties, for that event. And it, and methomyl ended up being put into a batch of salsa in the pot both times. It was cooked and then served cold to the patrons on their tables, which then became ill fairly quickly after consuming, that tainted product.
[00:17:31] Verrico: What's methomyl?
[00:17:33] Cox: That's a very nasty insecticide that you don't want in your food.
[00:17:35] Verrico: Other people wind up suffering because of, one person’s spat with another.
[00:17:40] Cox: Yes. And so, it ended up being that when they weren't caught the first time, they thought we'll just do it again.
[00:17:48] Verrico: No.
[00:17:49] Cox: They did the same exact attack, and it caused quite a few injuries. No one died from it, but they got very sick from it. So, and in that case, you know, we do, track within our food products, and our food models. We were able to track that same scenario, be able to process it with a similar type food and be able to show that the models actually predicted that case playing out the way it did. And so, it was very nice to be able to help inform and follow that case so that we can see that our science is actually, you know, standing up to what is happening out there in these smaller cases.
[00:18:24] Verrico: That's amazing. I mean, you know, we hear about this kind of stuff on the news, and then to understand that there's—I don't think people ever realize that there is an element in the Department of Homeland Security that is actually contributing to preventing these kinds of things, or at least on the forensic side of things, trying to help figure out what happened and making sure that people are brought to justice. I think this is truly awesome. So, what kinds of, I'm just going to throw this out there. What kinds of things are on the horizon for you?
[00:18:52-00:20:39] Cox: So, within this space, for us, I am looking forward to hopefully getting more funding to do more laboratory work because we're finding so much. I mean, I know that sounds awful right. But, the funding is always limited for everybody, not just in my space, right? There's not enough money, not enough resources to do everything that, that, that needs to be done in this world, for sure. But within the food defense realm, the science and being able to take it into the laboratory has been huge for us. And so stemming going from just being able to model things based off a theory and what we know about these compounds to be able to then go and verify those theories and those ideas of what we know about the chem physical properties and the toxicities of these compounds that can be adjusted and being able to test it in the laboratory and be able to say without a doubt, right? If you ingest this, you know, this is what's going to happen. Based on we'll know what the signs and symptoms look like, we'll be able to, kind of play out how much you need to consume and what does it do to the food products, all these things that no one really thinks about that you need to know and until an incident happens, and you need that information now, and you don't have it because it does take time to generate that in the laboratory. And so I am, I'm looking forward to continuing that portion of the work, to be able to really understand and characterize those threats and hazards that can be put into our food supply. And then of course, continuing to share that out with industry and USDA and FDA so that we can and FBI so that we can all work together to really secure the food supply from intentional adulteration.
[00:20:39] Verrico: That's amazing. How does that make you feel?
[00:20:41] Cox: This is the best part of my job. Food defense is, like I said, dear to my heart. And it's a lot more fun than a lot of the other tedious things I have to do with my job. And so this space really does bring me joy to work in. And the partners that we get to work with are so fun to work with, as well.
[00:21:00] Verrico: Thank you so much, Jessica. This really is so enlightening. So I'm going to ask you if you had an opportunity to give advice to some, young science-minded or anyone else, who thinking about kind of a career options and how they can make a difference in the world. What advice would you give?
[00:21:21] Cox: So, this is an interesting question because we're actually getting ready to have a couple interns come and join us for the summer.
[00:21:26] Verrico: There we go.
[00:21:27-00:22:20] Cox: And I actually love all the enthusiasm that they bring with them. Right? As you start to work and you get later in your career, I feel like that enthusiasm kind of dies out, you know? And you forget about all the excitement, right? Chemistry is exciting. Chemistry allows us to have computers. It allows us to have, I mean, even the clothes that we wear, right. People don't realize that. And so I think, you know, the advice I would give to somebody that's seeking a career, go into the career that you love, that you're passionate about, that makes you want to learn more all the time so that you don't ever lose that enthusiasm. I think that's really important because once you lose that enthusiasm, a job becomes a job.
[00:22:20] Verrico: Awesome. Awesome.
[00:22:21] Any advice for girls in science?
[00:22:25-00:23:45] Cox: There's always advice for girls in science. Do it. That's the number one. So I, you know, when I very first came out, I am not quite as old that there wasn't anybody, any girls in science, but there were very few. And so my first few jobs, I had all male colleagues and that was not an easy battle, right. Being in there with the good old boys and trying to find your way through and getting the respect that you kind of deserve, but it's worth it. Because science needs men's views on things and women’s views on things. And when we all work together, then great things happen. And so, I would just say, you know, it's still not equal, but there are many more women in this field now than there have been in the past. And they're very successful. And so, you can do anything you want as long as you're passionate and you want to go for it. So, I think that's my advice for the women, just do it. If you're passionate about it, don't let all the things that you hear about how hard it will be and how much trouble it may be to get, you know, into leadership ranks through all those men that sit there now, or whatever those things you know, that people are telling you, you know, if you're passionate about it, there's nothing to stop you from going as far as you want.
[00:23:45] Verrico: That is beautiful. And what a fabulous way to wrap this up. Thank you so much. That's Jessica Cox. She is program manager for Chemical Threat and Chemical Hazard Characterization in the Chemical Security and Analysis Center. Here at the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate. And thank you again for joining us today, Jessica. This has been Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S&T and find additional information about what you heard in this episode, visit us online at scitech.dhs.gov and follow us on social media at DHS SciTech. Thanks for listening.