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Research aimed at licking
food poisoning         
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[MARCH 29, 2005]  URBANA -- Eating potato salad made with mayonnaise that's gone bad, an apple or lettuce that wasn't washed properly, or undercooked meats are just three of the culprits that can cause acute gastroenteritis -- more commonly called food poisoning. It's the second-most common household illness in the United States, with an estimated 76 million food-related illnesses occurring each year. The University of Illinois is one of 18 institutions involved in a new program funded by the USDA that hopes to reduce those numbers by finding out more about the pathogens that cause those illnesses.

The program, called the Food Safety Research and Response Network, will involve 50 food safety experts who will investigate several of the most prevalent food-related illness pathogens. U of I professor of animal sciences Bryan White will lead the microbial ecology team. "Microbial ecology is an integral component of pre-harvest food safety not only in the study of host-microbe interactions, but also in the commonality of the basic precepts of microbial ecology and epidemiology," White said.

White is a leader in the use of modern molecular ecology techniques based on sequence comparisons of nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) and genomics-based approaches, which provide a molecular characterization of host-microbe interactions and a classification scheme that predicts natural epidemiological relationships. He has served on the USDA National Research Initiative Food Safety Program Grant Panel for the past four years and this year is serving as the panel manager for the Post-Harvest Food Safety section.

The program will be looking at pathogens like E. coli and salmonella to determine how they can be better detected and what can be done to mitigate their presence in livestock and produce in order to reduce the risk they pose to human health. The program will focus predominantly on food-safety issues on farms prior to the commodity reaching the processing plant.

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The Food Safety Research and Response Network will also serve as a response team of experts. At the request of other 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.

Food-related pathogens can enter the food chain throughout the farm-to-fork continuum. Interventions at the farm level to reduce pathogens in animals should reduce the risk of consumer exposure to these pathogens. However, the majority of food-related disease outbreaks can be prevented with proper cooking, storage and handling.

The Food Safety Research and Response Network is funded by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

[University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences news release]


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