North Carolina State University will use a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to strengthen food safety by studying human noroviruses across the food supply chain in an effort to design effective control measures and reduce the number of virus-caused food-borne illnesses.
Human noroviruses are the most common cause of food-borne disease, responsible for more than 5 million cases in the United States each year. Noroviruses spread from person to person, through contaminated food or water, and by touching contaminated surfaces. Molluscan shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels, fresh produce and foods that are extensively handled just prior to consumption are at greatest risk for contamination.
Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences at N.C. State, is the lead investigator of this five-year project. Her group, called the USDA-NIFA Food Virology Collaborative, consists of a team of more than 30 collaborators from academia, industry and government. The team will work to increase understanding of the viruses; educate producers, processors and food handlers on safe handling and preparation of food; and develop control and management strategies to reduce food contamination before and after harvesting.
“Most public-health professionals, food-industry professionals and consumers continue to believe that bacteria, not viruses, are the most common cause of food-borne disease,” Jaykus said. “This is in large part because human noroviruses are difficult to study – they cannot be cultivated outside of the human body, there are few commercial diagnostic tests available in the United States, and only a few scientists are trained specifically in food virology.
“We anticipate this project will result in enhanced understanding, surveillance and control of food-borne human noroviruses, with the ultimate goal of reducing the burden of food-borne disease caused by viruses.”
The project has six core objectives:
- Develop improved methods of studying human noroviruses and their role in food-borne illnesses.
- Develop and validate rapid and practical methods to detect human noroviruses.
- Collect and analyze data on viral food-borne illnesses – including how they are transmitted – and provide risk and cost analyses.
- Improve understanding of how human noroviruses behave in the food-safety chain in order to develop scientifically justifiable control measures.
- Develop online courses and curricula for food safety and health professionals and food service workers, and provide information to fresh produce and shellfish producers and processors on the risks, management and control of food-borne viruses.
- Develop a public literature database, build virus research capabilities in state public health laboratories, and develop graduate-level curricula to educate masters and doctoral students trained in food virology.
Other N.C. State researchers involved in the project include Drs. Trevor Phister and David Green (food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences); Orlin Velev (chemical and biomolecular engineering); Ben Chapman (family and consumer sciences and 4-H youth development); Otto (Chip) Simmons (biological and agricultural engineering); and Chris Gunter (horticultural science).
In addition to N.C. State, which serves at the lead institution, the core team includes scientists from Clemson University, Baylor College of Medicine, Emory University, Research Triangle Institute, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Georgia, NC A&T State University, NC Central University, and the Institute for Food Safety and Health at Illinois Institute of Technology. Other key collaborators hail from the University of Delaware, the Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, the U.S. FDA and USDA Agricultural Research Service, Arizona State University, New Mexico State University, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Rutgers University. Various industrial and government stakeholders will serve the collaborative in advisory capacity.
Noting that this is the largest USDA grant on food safety ever, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said the project will help “North Carolina lead the way in preventing food-borne illnesses and ensure our farmers continue to have the competitive edge in the global marketplace.”
Hagan, who included two key provisions to protect farmers in the Food Safety Modernization Act, said, “North Carolina has the best research universities in the country, and this investment harnesses N.C. State’s unique position at the crossroads of research and agriculture. Agriculture is North Carolina’s largest industry, generating $74 billion in economic activity and employing nearly one-fifth of the state’s workers.
“Preventing the spread of costly and dangerous food-borne illnesses is critical to keeping this industry thriving,” she said. “Even as we seek to get our fiscal house in order, I will continue to fight for smart investments in research and development that will mean jobs for North Carolina innovators.”
– Mick Kulikowski