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CU chosen to be part of $5 million food-safety initiative

FOR RELEASE: March 17, 2005

Acute gastroenteritis -- commonly referred to as food poisoning -- is the second most common household illness in the United States, with an estimated 76 million food-related illnesses occurring each year.

To learn more about preventing the spread of food-related illness pathogens on the farm, researchers at Cornell are joining a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded Food Safety Research and Response Network (FSRRN), led by North Carolina State University. FSRRN is a new multi-institutional, multidisciplinary team of more than 50 food safety experts from 18 colleges and universities who will investigate several of the most prevalent food-borne pathogens; it is funded by a $5 million grant from the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

"We will study pathogens, such as E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobactor, which are among the most important food-borne pathogens in the United States, to determine where they thrive in the environment, how they infect herds, how they can be detected and what can be done to reduce their presence in livestock and their risk to human health," explained Yrjo Grohn, one of the co-principal investigators on the project, a professor of epidemiology and chair of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell. The research, he said, will focus on pre-harvest food safety on farms.

At Cornell, all the researchers involved are in Grohn's department and include Yung-Fu Chang, professor; Ynte Schukken, director, Quality Milk Promotion Services (QMPS) and professor of epidemiology and herd health; Lorin Warnick, associate professor; and Linda L. Garrison-Tikofsky, senior extension veterinarian at QMPS.

Chang is co-leading work that will focus on characterizing the virulence factors required for Campylobacter and Salmonella to colonize in animals in an effort to identify potential target genes for pre-harvest intervention of these food-borne pathogens.

"Although these two organisms are widely distributed in the intestinal tract of animals and birds, relatively little is known about the specific molecular mechanisms by which these organisms colonize or cause disease in different animal hosts," explained Chang. "By better understanding these virulence factors and their role in the pathogenesis of these diseases, we hope to develop strategies that could help control and prevent food-borne diseases."

In collaboration with Washington State University, Grohn and Warnick are co-leading research that seeks to better identify the sources and spread of pathogens in livestock feeds. The researchers hope to learn how to minimize the transmission of pathogens in swine, poultry and cattle feed, on farms and at livestock production facilities. Grohn also will be taking the lead in developing new diagnostic tests, detection methods, pathogen surveillance strategies and models to understand the presence, distribution and abundance of pre-harvest food safety pathogens. Schukken and Garrison-Tikofsky of QMPS, a research and service microbiology laboratory that handles some 200,000 samples annually, will provide technical assistance.

While researchers at NC State are establishing a microbial core facility to serve as a clearinghouse for information about techniques used to detect, identify and characterize bacterial pathogens, researchers at Cornell and University of California-Davis are coordinating a second core facility to provide epidemiology support.

"Food-related pathogens can enter the food chain anywhere from the farm to home preparation of meals," said Grohn. "By reducing pathogens at the farm level, we should be able to make a significant impact in reducing risks to consumers. However, consumers should realize that most food-related disease outbreaks can be prevented with proper cooking, storage and food handling."

FSRRN also will 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.

The 16 other institutions in the project are: Iowa State University, McMasters University, Mississippi State University, North Dakota State University, Ohio State University, Tuskegee University, University of Arizona, University of California-Davis, University of California-Berkeley, University of Florida, University of Illinois, University of Kentucky, University of Minnesota, University of Montreal, Washington State University and West Texas A&M University.

By Susan S. Lang Cornell News Service