February 7, 2002
Purdue center aims at preventing, detecting food contamination
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. In an effort to protect the nation's food supply from biological and chemical contaminants, Purdue University and U.S. Department of Agriculture engineers and food scientists have teamed up to develop faster, more exact ways to detect possibly deadly substances.
With research grants and a partnership with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, Purdue has launched the Center for Food Safety Engineering focused on developing methods to find, identify and eradicate microbes or chemicals.
"The Purdue Center for Food Safety Engineering is utilizing a multidisciplinary team to contribute to the science and technology needed to enhance food safety," said Michael Ladisch, a scientist in the center that includes work by nearly 90 university researchers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur in the United States annually and claim approximately 5,000 lives and cost $7.7 billion or more. Although disease-causing bacteria accidentally can contaminate meat, fruit and vegetables at any stage, from the field through processing and storage, concern over food contamination has heightened since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.
Health officials have long viewed the safety of the country's food as a prime concern, Ladisch said. Foodborne pathogens cause 325,000 hospitalizations yearly, according to the CDC. In fact, the Clinton Administration issued a "no tolerance" edict for listeria monocytogenes in processed and ready-to-eat foods, such as hot dogs. Listeria is one of the most deadly of the biological food contaminants, with a fatality rate of about 20 percent.
One aspect of the task with which researchers must cope is the difficulty of tracing the source of foodborne illness. In addition, a minuscule amount of some pathogens, such as listeria, can cause illness. So the center's scientists are investigating detection methods that not only are faster and more exact, but also require smaller bacteria-containing food samples to make an analysis.
Food science Associate Professor Richard Linton, as center director, leads the biochemists; molecular biologists; physicists; and biomedical, electrical, computer, agricultural and biological engineers. Their quest is to prevent microbial organisms such as salmonella enteritidis, listeria, Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7, campylobacter and fusarium from entering the food chain at any point, whether it's the farm gate, the processing plant or the consumer's table. The investigators come from five schools within the university Agriculture, Consumer and Family Sciences, Engineering, Science, and Veterinary Medicine, and team with the USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists.
"The multidisciplinary center provides an important platform for bringing different scientific expertise together," said Linton, a microbiologist. "With this collection of creative minds working together, new and exciting research approaches are being developed and studied. This is an important step for solving complex food safety problems and, most importantly, for protecting the health of consumers."
A five-year, $7 million USDA grant provides funding for cooperative projects between the center and the Agricultural Research Service, while other funding has allowed creation of the center for expansion of the university researchers' work.
"We need long-term research to develop and improve techniques and to engineer methods in systems that are readily usable in the plant and the laboratory," said Ladisch, who also is director of Purdue's Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering and a distinguished professor of agricultural and biological engineering and biomedical engineering. "The partnership between the USDA and the university allows us to carry out cooperative research that facilitates achieving results that would be difficult otherwise."
The projects currently under way by Purdue scientists at the Center for Food Safety Engineering focus on the following areas:
Writer: Susan A. Steeves, (765) 496-7481, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Mike Ladisch, (765) 494-7022, email@example.com
Randy Woodson, director of agricultural research programs, (765) 494-8362
Rashid Bashir, associate professor, electrical and computer engineering, (765) 496-6229 firstname.lastname@example.org
Arun Bhunia, associate professor, food science, (765) 494-5443, email@example.com
Bruce Applegate, assistant professor, food science, (765) 496-7920, firstname.lastname@example.org
Maribeth Cousin, professor, food science, (765) 494-8287, email@example.com
Timothy Haley, assistant professor, food science, (765) 494-9093, firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles Santerre, associate professor, foods and nutrition, (765) 496-3443, email@example.com
Charles Woloshuk, associate professor, botany and plant pathology, (765) 494-3450, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Listeria can be found on all types of food and can even grow in the refrigerator. Purdue University Center for Food Safety Engineering researchers have developed a method to pasteurize ready-to-eat meat after processing. (Purdue Agricultural Communications Photo by Miranda Beach.)
A publication-quality photograph is available at ftp://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/listeria.jpeg.
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