PALMER STATION, ANTARCTICA — 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.
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 Army Capt. Austin Leedy, from Public Health Activity-San Diego, that means actually traveling to Antarctica to conduct inspections.
“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 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,” she said.
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.
“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 concluded. “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.”