Public Release: 

From farm-to-fork - Canadian researcher part of new American food-safety initiative

McMaster University

Acute gastroenteritis - commonly referred to as food poisoning - is the second most common household illness in the United States, with an estimated 76 million food-related illnesses occurring each year. The frequency of incidents is similar in Canada, and the cost to the Canadian economy is estimated at $1 billion per year.

A new program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and led by North Carolina State University, hopes to reduce those numbers by finding out more about what causes those illnesses.

Jan Sargeant, DVM, associate professor of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster University, is the only Canadian lead investigator with the new Food Safety Research and Response Network (FSRRN).

The network is a multi-institutional, multidisciplinary team of more than 50 food safety experts from 18 colleges and universities who will investigate several of the most prevalent food-related illness pathogens. FSRRN is funded by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service.

The network will be looking at pathogens including E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobactor to determine where they are found in the environment, how they are sustained, and how they infect herds. The investigators will look how they can be detected and what can be done to mitigate their presence in livestock and produce to reduce the risk they pose to human health. This effort focuses predominantly on food-safety issues on farms prior to the commodity reaching the processing plant.

Sargeant will be coordinating teams of researchers, from the Canadian Public Health Agency and two American universities, to formally review the available research on current interventions to reduce the presence of pathogens on the farm. Specifically, Sargeant's teams will be evaluating ways of containing salmonella in swine and poultry operations.

"There has been a lot of research done, but the issue is that we don't know which interventions will work for many of the food borne pathogens," said Sargeant. "We will be systematically reviewing all of the available research to determine which interventions we can apply at the farm level to prevent pathogens from getting into the food chain."

The FSRRN will also serve as a response team of experts. At the request of other U.S. federal and state agencies, the team would be mobilized to conduct focused research needed to control major episodes of food-related illness. This could also include the investigation of health problems associated with agricultural bioterrorism and the deliberate contamination of agricultural commodities.

According to project manager Jay Levine, faculty member of the American College of Veterinary Medicine, one of the benefits will be researchers with a broad range of expertise working together. "Our team has expertise in epidemiology, food microbiology, pathogen detection, microbial genetics, risk analysis, spatial analysis, agricultural economics, public health, genetics, and livestock production systems."

The institutions in the project are: North Carolina State University, Cornell University, Iowa State University, McMaster University, Mississippi State University, North Dakota State University, The Ohio State University, Tuskegee University, University of Arizona, University of California at Davis, University of California at Berkeley, University of Florida, University of Illinois, University of Kentucky, University of Minnesota, University of Montreal, Washington State University, and West Texas A&M University.


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