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Whether buying food in a grocery store, dining at a restaurant or purchasing pet treats or livestock feed, Michigan consumers can rest assured they’re getting quality products that are safe for consumption. This is due in part to the Michigan Rapid Response Team (MI RRT).

Established in 2008, MI RRT is part of a national RRT program that comprises 18 states in a partnership between the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and state agencies.

See more: Michigan Food Hubs

With an emphasis on multiagency coordination and collaboration, MI RRT primarily includes members of the FDA Detroit and Chicago district offices, the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) and the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, who focus on keeping the population safe and healthy through early detection, rapid investigation and outbreak control in the event of human and animal food emergencies.

“If we have an outbreak of disease in livestock, an invasive plant pest or a foodborne illness issue that arises in our state, we have a team of well-trained people who are ready to handle the problem quickly and efficiently,” says Brad Deacon, director of the Office of Legal Affairs and emergency management coordinator for MDARD. “We use the Incident Command System to ensure we have an organized response to whatever comes our way, and we regularly hold training sessions so everyone can practice what may be required of them when faced with a true emergency.”

Michigan rapid response team

Photo credit: iStock/Juanmonino

Preparing for Statewide Emergencies

Those training sessions include sampling teams that participate in multidisciplinary emergency preparedness exercises, focusing on collecting and testing various products. Through cross-training, Deacon says the department is able to build surge capacity.

Before setting out, sampling teams consult with MDARD’s lab to determine the size of the sample that’s needed for testing, along with the temperature at which it should
be kept and other factors that might impact the test results.

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In the past, some of the findings have resulted in national recalls. For example, during a July 2019 training session, a sampling team acquired pig ear dog treats to test for salmonella – and after the results came back positive for the bacteria, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA issued warnings that consumers should avoid the treats and retailers should stop selling them across the U.S.

Sampling teams have also collected samples of luster dust (a powder commonly used in cake and candy decorating) to determine if the products were nontoxic and safe to eat. Additionally, they’ve collected fish from various Michigan restaurants to ensure they were the species advertised on the menu.

“We’re always looking for ways to help protect the public, and we take our responsibility to investigate and test Michigan products very seriously,” says Craig VanBuren, director of MDARD’s Laboratory Division. “We have the capability to test for myriad things, from pesticides to pathogens to metals.”

Teamwork Leads to Success

Local health departments, academic institutions and other organizations across Michigan also contribute to the state’s ongoing emergency preparedness efforts, which means a significant number of people – including those who might never take part in activities like sample collecting – are ready to act when the pressure is on.

“These practice exercises are so valuable because they give us the opportunity to learn when the stakes are relatively low, and at the same time, we’re still doing important work that benefits our state and even our nation,” says Venus Harris, MDARD Southeast Region food supervisor, who served as an incident commander during a 2019 training session. “I’ve gotten a lot out of the two trainings I’ve completed, and I feel prepared to help with a real emergency situation in the future.”

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With that in mind, it’s easy to see why MDARD Director Gary McDowell says Michigan is in great hands.

“MDARD plays a critical role in making sure the food available across the state is safe for consumers, and we are dedicated to upholding Michigan’s long-standing reputation as a provider of healthy, nutritious foods,” McDowell says. “I’ve attended several training sessions and have seen firsthand how competent and capable our employees are, so I have nothing but the highest confidence in our department’s ability to handle a food-related emergency.”

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