October 21, 2008

Univ. Receives $1.6 Million For Food Safety Research

Print More

With issues surrounding the E. coli outbreak in 2006 from spinach, contaminated tomatoes this past summer and the toxic milk in China, food safety has garnered increased attention and Cornell researchers have been called to the line of duty.
Cornell has received a $1.6 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to study food safety, and is one of around 20 universities to receive part of a $13.8 million grant. The USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service annually awards grants to fund research that allows science based, practical findings to be shared amongst the food industry and consumers.
“The entire grant is for four years and the overall objective is to enhance the safety of fruits and vegetables for the United States,” said Prof. Randy Worobo, food science and technology, the principal investigator.
According to Worobo, the team will look at the handling of produce and try to identify specific points within the production chain that are problematic. They will then come up with extension and education materials to educate sectors of the produce exchange as to what the high-risk practices are.
“This Special Emphasis Grant represents a multidisciplinary, collaborative effort among scientists from several institutions and states,” reads the project description. “The research includes applied research, outreach and education components aimed at reducing the risk of contamination of fresh and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables with foodborne pathogens by intervening at the growing, harvesting, packinghouse, transportation, retail and consumer levels.”
Researchers from Cornell will collaborate with researchers at the University of California-Davis, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, Texas Tech University and West Texas A&M University. Worobo said that it is important for there to be collaboration between the institutes because each one specializes in a specific subject, such as animal husbandry, production practices, and pathogen transfer studies.
For example, Michelle Danyluk is a researcher at the University of Florida who will be working on one of the objectives of the project that specifically looks at the transfer from different sources of contamination onto fresh produce.
“I think it’s a very exciting opportunity for people from all over the United States to work together on a project that should hopefully produce some very applicable real life answers to problems we are facing right now in food safety with fresh produce,” said Danyluk.
Danyluk said that she anticipates it would be around a year to a year-and-a-half before the concrete practical applications are noticeable. These applications would be in the form of recommendations to aid in different practices. For example, there would be different recommendations in terms of how to properly handle food in retail, packinghouse, and consumer and restaurant situations in order to prevent unhealthy practices.
“The primary thing that the project is looking at is the farm to fork continuum, focusing on specific areas within that continuum where we can make strides to understand why we are having produce associated outbreaks and define things we can do to minimize risks,” said Elizabeth Bihn, a corresponding investigator.
Bihn pointed out that when one considers how many times people eat in a day the occurrences of foodborne illness outbreaks are fairly minimal. However, some of the organisms are very virulent and can result in serious illness or death. This raises awareness and concern among consumers, retailers, growers and regulatory personnel. Therefore, the goal of the project is to reduce any opportunity there is for contamination.
“I think what makes this project unique is that it’s a true collaborative effort,” said Worobo. “It’s orchestrating getting everybody involved in the grant to work towards the same ultimate goal of enhancing produce safety.”