Improving Food Quality and Safety of Our Food Supply
NIFA’S FOOD SAFETY SCIENCE EMPHASIS AREA supports our nation with a safe food supply. Approximately 48 million Americans contract foodborne illnesses each year from food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. NIFA is committed to reducing the number of illnesses by protecting the food supply through research, education, and extension efforts that focus on all levels of the food chain, from farm to fork. This portfolio addresses a wide variety of food safety issues that include:
- Delivering food safety education, outreach, and training to a variety of audiences;
- Employing nanotechnology in production, processing, packaging, and safety of food;
- Increasing food safety and food quality through improved processing technologies;
- Improving safety across agricultural production systems, including organic agriculture;
- Identifying the interactions between food safety, nutrition, and human health;
- Understanding plant- pathogen interactions;
- Implementing a systems approach for developing effective mitigation strategies for antimicrobial resistance;
- Preventing, detecting, and controlling foodborne and waterborne pathogens; and
- Understanding the ecology of foodborne pathogens, including viruses.
NIFA-funded researchers at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) studied factors that affect antibiotic resistance and virulence of Salmonella during poultry processing. Their analysis showed that the chilling process can lead to Salmonella contamination and cross-contamination among poultry carcasses but has no effect on the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant genes. This knowledge will be used to develop tools to help poultry inspectors improve Salmonella detection, helping to improve food safety and prevent future food recalls.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 48 million Americans get sick each year from eating food contaminated by pathogens. Harvard University researchers are using an AFRI grant to investigate a novel, chemical-free, nanotechnology-based way to inactivate pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria on the surface of fruits and vegetables. Their method involves engineered water nanoparticles—aerosolized water that is passed through a strong electric field—in a process called electrospraying. Despite their small size, about 4,000 times smaller than the width of human hair, the droplets contain a high electrical charge that kills pathogens on contact. After destroying the pathogen the water evaporates and leaves no chemical residue.
Keeping the food on America’s tables safe to eat is a major priority at NIFA, and our partners are constantly working to find innovative ways to stay a step ahead of bacteria and other dangerous contaminants that can cause illness. A research team at the Auburn University Detection and Food Safety Center developed a new portable and easy-to-use screening tool to test fresh fruits and vegetables for the presence of bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses. The team developed biosensors that are placed directly on the fresh fruits or vegetables. The eyelash-size biosensors are coated with antibodies and phages, which are viruses that target specific bacteria that vibrate when placed within an oscillating magnetic field. Frequency changes help inspectors determine the type and amount of bacteria on a given fruit or vegetable. In a matter of minutes, the sensors can detect as few as 500 Salmonella cells amid a sea of a million bacterial cells. The biosensors are disposable and inexpensive, costing less than 1/1,000 of a cent.
A variety of high-risk foods, such as fresh produce, poultry, meats, and seafood have been associated with foodborne outbreaks and NIFA has provided many grants to researchers looking for ways to reduce the risk. While cooking is generally a surefire way to eliminate pathogenic bacteria from food, not all foods are cooked. A NIFA-funded researcher at the University of Delaware developed a technology to improve the safety of food without using heat. The research team developed a “UV oven” that exposes food to ultraviolet light, which kills pathogens. The oven looks like a microwave but generates no heat. Studies of spot-inoculated produce show that the UV oven can kill up to 99.99 percent of pathogenic bacteria.