UD's Haiqiang Chen, right, shown working in a laboratory with doctoral student Hudaa Neetoo, has received a research grant to fight foodborne illness.

$5 million USDA grants

CANR researchers Chen, Kniel receive funds to fight foodborne illness

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11:14 a.m., July 27, 2011--Researchers in the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) have received funds to continue the fight against foodborne illness in the form of two grants totaling more than $5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Haiqiang Chen, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, will serve as the project director for a team of researchers who received a $4,997,078 grant focusing on the “Inactivation of Enteric Foodborne Viruses in High Risk Foods by Non-Thermal Processing Technologies.”

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The study will focus mainly on human noroviruses, which cause acute gastroenteritis and account for more than 50 percent of foodborne disease outbreaks. Other enteric foodborne viruses such as hepatitis A virus and rotavirus will also be studied.

The overall goal of the study is to identify effective non-thermal processing technologies to destroy the viruses in high-risk foods, such as shellfish and produce, and disseminate the knowledge through education and outreach.

While thermal processing technologies, which involve heating food to a high temperature to kill microorganisms and enzymes, is the most commonly used processing technology in the food industry, scientists have been working on non-thermal processing technologies for the past three decades. 

According to Chen, non-thermal processing technologies can still kill microorganisms and enzymes while, at the same time, better maintaining the raw characteristics of processed foods.

The efficiency of those non-thermal technologies will be tested, as will the effect of processing technologies on the quality of high-risk foods. 

“This grant will help us to understand the mechanism of viral inactivation by non-thermal processing technologies, potentially develop a culture system to assess the survival of human norovirus and develop effective processing technologies that potentially could be used by the food industry to control foodborne viruses in high risk foods,” Chen said.

Kali Kniel, associate professor of animal and food sciences, along with Manan Sharma of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Environmental Microbiology and Food Safety Laboratory and Jeri Barak of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have received a grant of more than $444,949 to study “Plant Responses to Foodborne Bacteria and Viruses.”

“We are working together to investigate the growing problem of fresh produce contamination by microbial pathogens,” said Kniel. “This is the first time all three pathogens of high importance are being investigated using novel approaches.”

The three pathogens the group will be looking at are norovirus, pathogenic E. coli, and salmonella. The long-term goal of the their research is to understand and characterize the mechanisms that allow foodborne pathogens to attach to and colonize plants. 

The researchers said they are hoping that this will eventually lead them to the more effective use of antimicrobials and good agricultural practices, which will reduce the number of illnesses and harmful effects on public health. 

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson

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