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Safeguarding our nation's food supply

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Future outbreak investigators tour a farm in Florida as part of the week-long “Produce Farm Investigations” course conducted by the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

When a salmonella, E. coli or other food-borne outbreak occurs, how is the source of that pathogen tracked down?  Researchers from the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security (WIFFS), in conjunction with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are training outbreak investigators to answer that question.

Last month, 31 future investigators from around the country and Puerto Rico met in Homestead, FL for a week-long “Produce Farm Investigations” course that focused on outbreak investigations in tropical fruits, tomatoes, herbs and spices.  Several WIFSS researchers presented talks during the three days of lectures and two days of farm tours. 

WIFSS Director Rob Atwill gave a presentation on the role water plays in contamination.  Xunde Li discussed the role of microbial agents, such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 that may come in contact with produce.  David Goldenberg facilitated a two-day farm visit in which students toured working farms and conducted mock investigations. 

“These educational classes are critical because the change in eating habits of Americans places more foods at risk for food-borne outbreaks and the number of retiring food regulators in both the federal and state governments means that there is a great demand for additional trained professionals,” Atwill said.

WIFSS is in year two of a five-year,  $6.8  million FDA grant focused on preventing food-borne illnesses, which sicken one out of six people in the US each year. It is part of an FDA competitive grants program that aims to build an integrated national food safety system, as mandated by the U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011. (More info here.) 

The Food Safety Modernization Act has a need to address the rapid rise in food-borne outbreaks associated with fresh, raw agricultural products. Consumers are eating more of these today because of the emphasis on better human health and to combat obesity. The health emphasis on eating raw vegetables, fruits and nuts has an associated risk of greater contamination of these foods as they move from the farm to the table. WIFSS is involved with FDA in training future investigators on how to search for the potential cause leading to these disease outbreaks. 

Last year, WIFSS conducted two courses in Florida and Monterey.  Another course will be offered in Florida this spring. In June, a course will be held in Monterey, focused on leafy greens. In July, Michigan will be the location with a focus on berries. And the Veterinary Medical Teaching Research Center in Tulare will be the focus of a course in August with a primary emphasis on tree nuts and dairies.

“We are confident that our collaboration with the FDA in providing standardized training for outbreak investigators can dramatically reduce the annual rate of food-related illness in the United States," said Bennie Osburn, principal investigator for the grant and dean emeritus of the School of Veterinary Medicine. “We’re proud to be at the forefront of safeguarding our nation’s food supply and the health of our communities.”