Antarctica: Where food safety matters

Courtesy Photo | Members of the National Science Foundation inventory boxes of frozen foods at Palmer Station, Antarctica, October 2019. The boxes of food were inspected by U.S. Army Public Health Command-Pacific veterinary food safety officers to ensure the food was safe to eat and that no one would get sick from foodborne illnesses. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Austin Leedy)



Story by Amber Kurka 

Public Health Command – Pacific

TRIPLER ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Hawaii — Buried in a mile of glacier ice and often described as one of the world’s most hostile environments, Antarctica is a windy, polar desert with record breaking temperatures that can reach below -140° F.

Due to its harsh winter climate, strong ocean currents, and dangerous sea ice formations, passage to Antarctica is difficult, making it the most remote and inaccessible continent in the world.

While this barren continent is officially uninhabited, the harsh weather and remote location does little to keep scientists away.

As many as 4,000 visiting scientists from around the globe live in research stations that dot the continent during the summer season, and approximately 1,000 brave the harsh winter months.

Keeping researchers healthy in such an isolated part of the world is critical; disease and illness can be devastating to this hard to reach population.

For the 40 or so National Science Foundation researchers at Palmer Station, having safe food, storage, and cooking areas are critical for their health and survival during their year-long operations.

U.S. Army Public Health Command-Pacific veterinary food safety officers partner with the National Science Foundation to ensure Palmer Station has a safe food supply and to perform independent food inspections throughout the entire annual resupply process.

For veterinary food safety officers like Capt. Austin Leedy, from Public Health Activity-San Diego, that means actually traveling to Antarctica to conduct inspections.

“Capt. Leedy’s mission is to inspect the facilities at Palmer Station and to provide a little bit of training to the folks on the ground who are geographically separated,” explained Lt. Col. Lauren Pecher, PHA-SD commander. “While there, she will ensure facilities are still meeting standards for food production and food storage and to make sure food preparation facilities are appropriate for use.”

But before inspections begin in Antarctica, fresh foods are inspected in Punta Arenas, Chile, before being loaded onto the research vessel Laurence M. Gould.

“So, before I get on the ship in Punta Arenas, I will do receipt inspections on the fresh food that is destined to Palmer Station,” Leedy explained. “I have the crew open every box and I inspect everything, because it is very important that I look at the food before it gets on the ship to ensure it is in good quality. We don’t want anyone to get sick from the food that is being delivered.”

For Army food safety officers, preventive medicine is a key part of their mission.

“Food inspection in general is critically important to ensure not just the quality of the food that people are consuming, but to also ensure their safety from foodborne diseases,” explained Pecher. “Historically, during wars and military operations, disease killed more people than battle injuries, and foodborne diseases have been a large part of that. So, preventing foodborne illness is a critical way we support U.S. operations throughout the world.”

“We focus on prevention,” Leedy explained. “We don’t want to be treating people on a ship or on a station as unique and special as Palmer, because they have a very small amount of people, in a very small amount of space. If they get sick, it’s going to spread like wildfire in both populations. So it’s very important that we keep them healthy.”

As part of that preventative measure, Leedy suits up in protective gear to observe cooking processes both on the ship and at Palmer Station.

“I’m constantly down in the refrigeration and down in the freezer making sure temperatures are okay. I may even walk into the kitchen with proper personal protection equipment and gear on, so I don’t contaminate anything, and I’m standing there watching the staff cook and prepare food making sure their processes meet health standards,” continued Leedy.

But the inspection doesn’t start with Leedy. It actually begins months in advance when food safety officers inspect commercial facilities and frozen foods back in the U.S.

“I got really excited when I helped unload the frozen food containers at Palmer Station, because I saw the ‘vet inspected’ writing on the boxes and knew our teammates had done their job to ensure the food was safe to eat,” said Leedy.

Not only were the frozen food boxes vet inspected, but it became personal for Leedy when she saw the writing on the boxes.

“It meant a lot to me when I discovered that a former Soldier of mine, Sgt. DeAnthony Graham, was the one who inspected the frozen food shipment that is here at Palmer Station,” Leedy continued.

For Leedy, this trip was more than seeing the vet inspected boxes, it allowed her to see how her role as a veterinary food safety officer really makes a difference throughout the world, and how food inspection processes tie together.

“For me this trip was personal and really made me appreciate the work that we do back in California. When I unloaded the frozen foods and saw the containers of ice cream it hit me hard, because I personally went to that facility to do their commercial audit inspection,” Leedy explained. “Someone at Public Health Command-Pacific reviewed my commercial sanitation audit, and now there is ice cream in Antarctica! So, for me, this mission has been really meaningful because I get to see how food inspections come full circle.”

As Leedy’s time in Antarctica closed and as she prepared for her journey back to Punta Arenas, Chile, she reflected on her experience and mission.

“What I want people to know is, what food inspectors do matters,” said Leedy. “I want all of my teammates to understand the ‘why’ of our mission, and to know that what they do has value. Being out here in one of the most remote parts of the world, and seeing this food, our work makes a difference not just for the National Science Foundation, but for our nation.”

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