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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

Creating a PFAS-Contaminated Meat SRM: A Q&A With NIST Chemists Melissa Phillips and Ben Place

masked man in a white lab coat holding up a frozen container in a laboratory

Ben Place holding a vial of ground meat chilled and reduced to a powder by the cryogrinder instrument next to him.

Credit: A. Yarberry/NIST

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) research chemists Melissa Phillips and Ben Place are working to create a Standard Reference Material (SRM) to help industry and regulators detect the hazardous industrial chemical PFAS in meat. SRMs are meticulously measured materials that researchers can use as a quality control for their tests. Melissa is leading the logistics of the project and the interaction with stakeholders, while Ben is overseeing the work with the meat and the measurement of the amount of PFAS in it. NIST public affairs specialist Alex Boss interviewed Melissa and Ben to learn more about this project.

We hear you’ve been working to create an SRM for contaminated meat. Could you tell us about that?

Melissa Phillips: Our group at NIST has ongoing relationships with technical staff at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for various projects, and those agencies reach out to us if they have a particular need. This SRM project came about when the FDA told us they’re trying to measure the industrial chemical PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in agricultural food products, but they’re seeing different results in the measurements made by different labs. The FDA asked NIST if it could help them by making a reference material. They connected me with a farmer in Maine who has PFAS-contaminated animals and got the meat to us so that we can make a reference material from it.

Ben, can you talk about why PFAS is important?

Ben Place: Sure. PFAS is widely produced around the world as an industrial surfactant – for example, to make clothing or frying pans water- and oil-repellant, to insulate electric wires, as a floor sealant, or as a fire-fighting foam. A lot of research suggests that PFAS causes potential adverse health outcomes, including cancer, low infant birth weight, or immune-system problems. The FDA and USDA know about these adverse health outcomes and they’re just now finding out more about the presence of PFAS in meat and other food. It’s an emerging concern, so it has become a hot topic. They asked NIST to create an SRM meat sample contaminated by an accurately measured amount of PFAS to help them understand what humans are being exposed to, what kind of health outcomes result, and what kind of regulations are needed.

What did the farmer say when you told him what you intended to do with those samples?

Melissa: We did not talk directly to the farmer. The FDA put us in touch with the local department of public health and the Maine state veterinarian, who had informed this farmer of his PFAS contamination problem. Those parties negotiated all the details about getting us some of the farmer’s meat. We understand that the farmer would lose his entire herd because he isn’t going to be able to sell or use the meat. He was more than willing to sell a few of the animals to us so we can make a reference material and, in theory, help prevent this kind of contamination from happening or better understand the implications of it happening.

How did NIST get the meat samples?

Melissa: A meat processing plant prepared the meat from a dairy cow, beef cow and a pig.

Ben: The meat came to us in big boxes of frozen ground-beef patties and ground-pork patties separated by butcher paper — an estimated total of 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of meat. In terms of what they look and smell like, there isn’t any difference between these patties and normal frozen meat patties.

How did the PFAS get into the meat?

Ben: There are many possible routes, but the most common route is through groundwater contaminated by industrial release. When PFAS is released into the groundwater, it can be taken up by the plants that are fed to the animals. Or the animals may directly ingest water from a contaminated well.

What will the SRM be used for, and which agencies or companies will use it?

Melissa: This will be a control material for anybody who wants to measure PFAS in any sort of meat. They would take our SRM sample and test it the same way they would test any other meat sample; they would run it through their usual procedures and instrumental analysis. They would compare their answer on how much PFAS is in this sample to the SRM certificate that will give the measurements that Ben and the rest of the team will make. If their answers agree with what’s on the certificate, then they can have some confidence that their methods and procedures are working. On the other hand, if they see that all the numbers they get are 10% higher than NIST’s, then they can say, “Maybe I’ve got some contamination somewhere in my measurement system and I need to check before I start testing my unknown samples.”

I think the SRM is primarily going to be used by researchers and regulators — I would assume that the FDA and USDA would be primary customers.

There is a general buzz in the food industry and big food companies about making sure that PFAS contamination is on the list of problems to be tackled — and they realize that they don’t have reliable methods to measure the amount of PFAS in food. This new SRM will be a step in that direction.

What have your family and friends said when you’ve told them about this work?

Ben: In addition to both of us being vegetarians, Melissa and I have something else in common: We’re both from Michigan. Michigan has a notable PFAS contamination issue. One of the responses I get from my family and friends when we talk about NIST’s SRMs is that they’re excited about the fact that somebody is doing something. They’re concerned about their food. They want to know they can trust the results if they ever get their food tested. They’ve always known that’s what we do at NIST — we help people trust their test results. This is just one more way we get to introduce confidence that the food Americans are eating is healthy and clean.

Melissa is from an area of Michigan that is just as contaminated as my area, so it gets kind of personal with some of our family members when they ask questions.

Are you going to get tired of working with contaminated meat over that period of time?

Ben: I think that you get… I’m trying to think of a really nice way to say this and I’m not going to be able to say it really well…

Whatever material you’re working on for an SRM, it becomes your baby. You don’t get tired of it, but I’m going to be extracting meat hundreds of times. It’s exactly the same steps each time. Exactly the same protocols. The fact that it’s really sticky and going to stick to my spatula and stick to my test tubes is going to cause me aggravation. That part, I imagine, I’m going to get tired of.

When you’re finished creating an SRM, it’s like a bird leaving the nest. It’s a bittersweet thing. You’re happy to watch it go off, but you’re also happy you no longer have to see it again except for when we relook at the SRM in five-plus years to make sure that everything about it is OK. I’ve felt that way about whatever SRM material I’ve worked with. You’re happy it’s out there being used, but you’re also very happy it’s no longer on your plate. And you’re happy that you’ve made a product that you can be proud of.

What do you like about this work?

Melissa: (With a laugh) I like that I don’t have to touch the meat. Ben will do that part.

But my favorite part of my job is helping people when they come to us and say, “We have this problem” and we’re able to actually produce something that’s going to help them. I enjoy working with stakeholders. I enjoy explaining what we can do for them and getting their feedback. It is the NIST mission. We are that support organization and we don’t do this for headlines. We do this because other agencies are trying to do their thing and they need our help, and we can help them do it better.

Ben: I agree. I’m trained in environmental chemistry, and you don’t go into environmental chemistry without a demand for application. I’m not off in my own little world developing new theories and ideas. Environmental chemistry is solving an obvious problem. Let’s fix something. Let’s do something.

Another part of each SRM project appeals to the scientist in me — that each project is a brand-new exploration for me. I’m super excited about all of the problems I’m going to run into and how to solve them. I became an analytical chemist to solve such problems, but also to figure out the minor things, like how to get the meat into the test tubes. Such questions are going to be a big part of getting this reference material ready.

I’m sure I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it, and (grinning as he says this) I’ll tell Melissa about how gross the meat is all the time. And send her pictures of it.

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