by Diana Bradley
, Staff Writer | April 19, 2012
The job title "taste tester" usually evokes images of some lucky so-and-so sitting around all day sampling newfangled ice cream flavors or beverages. In other words: fantasy job.
But an oral contrast flavor taster? That might be one pair of shoes job seekers won't soon be scrambling to fill. However, Tom Ortiz, product director for Bracco Diagnostics Inc.'s worldwide oral imaging business, happens to relish the opportunity.
"I try all our flavors all the time and I make my reps do the same," says Ortiz. "When everyone goes through training, they need to try everything. It gives everyone an opportunity to understand what it is exactly that we're asking patients to drink."
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Doing this with a pharmaceutical agent might seem dangerous, but Ortiz denies there is any risk to taste testing barium sulfate - the substance Bracco uses. It is an inert agent, meaning the system does not absorb it.
"Even still, when the reps or I taste the product, it is like wine tasting where they sip and spit out just to get a sense for the flavoring," says Ortiz. "But preference tests are performed without the barium."
From a total market standpoint, there are only two varieties of oral contrast agents: oral iodine and barium sulfate. Ever since Covidien exited the barium market a year and a half ago, Bracco has remained the only company that currently produces barium in the U.S., according to Ortiz.
"We are the last group standing; on our own as the sole supplier for all barium sulfate products used in radiology," says Ortiz.
For over 100 years, barium technology has been used in some form or fashion in radiology. Over time, as technology has progressed -- moving from X-ray and fluoro examinations to CT -- barium utilization has declined. With a similar consistency to a milk shake, barium has a naturally chalky, bitter taste.
In 2008, when Bracco bought the company E-Z-EM, they acquired a full line of barium solutions for oral contrast: Smoothie Readi-Cat 2. These smoothies, which mask the taste of barium sulfate, come in five flavors: berry, banana, creamy vanilla, apple, and mochaccino. Berry is "by far" the most popular, notes Ortiz.
"I like the mochaccino flavor," says Ortiz. "But when you ask a whole room full of people for their favorite flavor, you get ten different answers; it just comes down to personal preference."
Apple is the least favored flavor. But one bad apple does not spoil the bunch, in this case. Informal feedback suggests that apple-flavored smoothie does have a strong following among one group in particular: chemotherapy patients.
"Radiation is obviously going to have an impact on how things taste for a patient," says Ortiz. "The apple flavor for a chemo patient may not taste at all the same for me. It is difficult to get a sense of what products are going to work for the general public, considering they won't all have gone through that type of experience."