Skip Palenik, founder of forensics firm Microtrace, has decades of experience in forensic analysis, ranging from checking contaminants in commercial food products to scrutinizing physical evidence in high-profile murders like the JonBenet Ramsey case. All tests should be performed with equal diligence, he told FoodProductionDaily.
“The best food forensic labs treat food samples the way they would if it were evidence for a murder case,” he said. “Any sample could potentially end up in litigation.”
Every step of the way, Palenik told FPD, food safety and analytical technicians should follow best practices. This includes careful sample preparation and preservation, initial analysis, documentation, and more.
Contamination incidents can be damaging to food and beverage manufacturers, Palenik advised. He added it is vital such contaminants are tested quickly and effectively.
“Food contamination complaints can quickly escalate,” he said. “A fast, competent response can address consumer concerns, while reducing media and financial exposure.”
Palenik related a story about a Chicago school nurse, who brought to officials a hamburger bun from the cafeteria dotted with what appeared to be rat droppings.
School leaders were alarmed because of the panic it could have caused among parents and citizens, and the bakery supplying the buns was terrified the uproar could lead to the loss of its lucrative contract with the school district.
Solid food forensics, Palenik said, saved the day. Tests determined the suspected rat droppings were actually particles of bread that got caught up in the bakery line, burned, then fell down into the burger buns.
Palenik’s career as a forensics expert began at a young age. He was bitten by the science bug while he was still a small boy.
“I’ve been looking through a microscope since I was 8 years old,” he said, jokingly adding, “I’m starting to get the hang of it.”
Occasionally, Palenik takes his work home. When his wife brought him a small hair she found in a granola bar, he tested it and determined it was a rodent hair. She wrote the food firm a complaint letter, taped the hair to it, and mailed it in, later receiving an apology and free granola bar coupons in return.
Palenik spoke to FPD during the Food Labs Conference at Pittcon 2014, an annual exposition that showcases analytical technology applicable to food safety, medical testing, and other arenas. The event is taking place in Chicago March 2-6.