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Treating food impurities like a crime

News editor

When someone dining out finds something odd and disgusting in their food, it’s cause for angst, for protests, perhaps for nausea, and certainly for a refund.

But if that person is forensic biochemist Dan Madgwick of Marion, it’s a cause for learning.

Madgwick runs CiboTech Laboratories, a business that does high-tech analysis of foreign items found in food that, ironically, is housed in a former grocery store.

When Madgwick discovered a 10-centimeter worm in a piece of salmon at a Colorado restaurant, he calmly pointed it out to the waiter.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to alarm you. I’m not looking for a free meal, I just wanted you to know because this is what I do, and part of my job is education.’”

Madgwick made an unusual request.

“I asked him if I could keep the worm, which I don’t think he was expecting, but I wanted it for my standard reference collection,” Madgwick said.

Then, rather than getting a new meal or a refund, he ate the fish.

“I don’t know that most people would have,” he said. “I knew most of the fish you eat has some parasite in it, but it’s most likely dead and not a safety issue.”

Madgwick didn’t say what he did with the worm when he got it back to the lab, but with his array of sophisticated equipment, he could analyze it down to the molecular level.

The nerve center of CiboTech is a 12 x 24-foot clean room where Madgwick conducts his investigations.

“That’s where the magic happens,” he said.

It’s no coincidence the room looks like a crime lab; food forensics requires similar equipment. Madgwick intended to go into criminal forensics, but when jobs were scarce, he turned his skills to the mysterious puzzles of the food industry.

“This is kind of like CSI without the CS — we don’t have the crime scene to go back to,” Madgwick said. “You have information imparted to this foreign material that tells a story, and we’re there to use our scientific knowledge and scientific experimentation to tell as much of that story as we can.”

CiboTech has clients across the nation, from Fortune 500 companies to small family-run food businesses, who send samples for analysis. Insurance companies and attorneys also are customers.

Two research-grade microscopes linked to a computer are the first stop for many of the samples, and Madgwick’s keen eye often can find solution in plain view.

“You find a black spot on your bread, and somebody automatically claims there’s rodent feces in the bread,” Madgwick said. “Feces is not true black. You look at feces under the microscope and there’s all sorts of stuff. You see rodent hair, you see insect parts, you see grain particles, you see a whole bunch of stuff a mouse ingested and flushed through it.”

Such specks are usually a harmless byproduct from the manufacturing line, Madgwick said.

“More often than not you send these bread products through a tunnel oven, and something hung up in the oven at one point and fell down onto a new bun. When you’re processing 400,000 buns a day, you can’t look at all of them.”

Not all investigations are so easily resolved, and for those Madgwick’s investigation goes high tech.

An electron microscope looks at a contaminant at a molecular level to determine its elemental composition. He might not be able to identify a glass chip with an optical microscope, but the electron microscope can tell him if it’s a chip from a light bulb or a Pyrex container.

“It’s on the order of 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair; you’re looking at pretty small stuff,” he said.

Spectrometers bombard samples with visible and infrared light and lasers. Patterns of energy absorbed by samples are “very distinct fingerprints” that reveal their unique compositions. Madgwick said these can be helpful in distinguishing different kinds of plastics, epoxies, and paint.

Rabbits and mice become co-investigators when fluorescence microscopy comes into play. Specific antibodies from those animals will attach to specific molecules Madgwick is looking for.

CiboTech also does polymerase chain reaction DNA testing to determine what certain biological samples are. Madgwick said the technique was used by another lab several years ago when a producer was suspected of mixing horse meat in with its beef.

When investigating food contaminants, airborne particles could foil Madgwick’s research. Ten industrial-strength, specialized air filters keep the air circulating through the lab clean.

“We’re two blocks away from the coop, and at the height of harvest, we have to sweep the floors upstairs every single day, but in here, I don’t think I’ve ever dusted, it’s been so efficient keeping out the contaminants and dust,” he said.

Every sample presents a new mystery, and it’s up to Madgwick to pull together the data to come up with a solution.

“Each one is kind of like a puzzle,” he said. “The thing with forensic science is that not every puzzle goes together nicely. These instruments can only tell you so much; it’s the human mind that puts them all together.”

Synthesizing the data doesn’t always take place in the clean room.

“Sometimes my human mind has to go wandering before it comes back to the lab,” Madgwick said. “I purposefully go out on walks and get out of Marion on a regular basis because there are those cases where I’m just stumped, I don’t know what the next step is in either analysis or interpreting the evidence. A lot of times it requires a change of scenery to make that light bulb go off.”

Madgwick can’t get by just on his scientific knowledge and sample analysis. Telling food manufacturers where a problem occurred requires knowing about their production processes and equipment, information he often gleans by visiting production sites.

When he’s not testing samples, Madgwick is doing research, building his database and exploring developments in forensic food analysis.

A recent $5,000 grant awarded to CiboTech by NetWork Kansas will aid his research by providing specialized computation software and a computer on which to run it. He also plans to install energy-efficient LED lighting and do a little painting.

“I can stretch that $5,000 so far,” he said. “There are so many projects I’ve been wanting to do. I’m hoping this will springboard into other types of grants.”

Marion has proved to be a good location for a business that doesn’t depend on local customers, Madgwick said.

“Our family’s experience here in Marion has been amazing,” he said. “This community has been very supportive, very accepting. When I got here, I didn’t know anybody save for one or two people, but the response to help me move in — I had people showing up on my doorstep to help move things around. That’s not something you can get in Wichita.”

Madgwick envisions a day when he can devote himself full-time to research and turn the day-to-day investigations over to someone else. And should a large laboratory someday decide CiboTech would be an attractive acquisition, he would listen.

“I like innovation and coming up with the next new thing,” he said. “If I get to the point where a company says, ‘We like what you’re doing, here’s some money,’ I’d take the money and go on to the next big thing, because I’ve got some ideas and hope to spend the rest of my life working on them.”

But for now, Madgwick is content building his three-year-old business, and despite what his work entails, he said consumers can be confident in the quality of the food they buy.

“We have the cleanest food supply in the world here in the United States,” he said. “They’re not out to hurt the consumers, they’re out to find a problem and correct it as soon as possible. We do what we can to try to help.”

Last modified March 16, 2017

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