Think you have the flu? Think again – that stomach upset could actually be foodborne illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 48 million people in the United States are stricken with foodborne illness annually, or one in six Americans. Among those, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
Tackling this global epidemic is the University of Arizona Food Safety Consortium, which brings together experts from the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, other UA departments, the Arizona Department of Agriculture and state health agencies.
The consortium is sponsoring national experts in the field of food safety at its third annual Food Safety Conference and Poster Session on Oct. 12 at the Omni Tucson National Resort. Among the speakers are Jeanette Thurston from USDA’s Division of Food Safety and Shannon Cole, senior director of science program management for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The 60-member Food Safety Consortium, formed in 2010, fosters research collaborations and shares critical information with producers, with the goal of preventing foodborne illness locally and globally.
“Many of the members are well known throughout the world in their areas of expertise,’’ said Lynn Joens, professor of veterinary science and microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who heads up the consortium.
The consortium was formed by Ron Allen, now associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“The goal is to get our data out and to bring money in to award grants to new investigators coming in for research that can be shared with USDA or even the National Institutes of Health,’’ Joens added.
The group meets monthly to share information about its studies and efforts. Work focuses on five major organisms: norovirus, salmonella, campylobacter, listeria monocytogenes and escherichia coli O157:H7.
John Marchello, professor of animal sciences and a member of the consortium, said research and sanitation procedures mandated by the government have resulted in a reduction in foodborne illness, but that more research and dissemination of information is needed.
Marchello oversees research and analysis conducted at the college’s Food Product and Safety Laboratory. The 15,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, USDA-inspected meat processing facility, formerly known as the Meat Sciences Laboratory, is used in part to perform microbial analysis of food items. Marchello said his department is contracting with more than 50 companies and agencies to test everything from salsa and beans to shrimp and beef. He also is studying how ozone can be used to reduce contamination of food products.
The ultimate goal is to work “farm to fork,’’ improving food safety for consumers. “We have a lot of good scientists doing a lot of important work,’’ Marchello said of the consortium.
Kurt Nolte, director of Yuma County Cooperative Extension, takes information from consortium meetings to growers in Yuma.
“We are bringing the University to the producers,’’ Nolte said. “The ultimate goal of a land-grant institution is to develop new procedures that filter back to the consumers. That’s what we have been doing for 150 years.’’
Nolte said from November to March, Yuma is the “epicenter’’ of leafy greens production. Yuma processes 18 million pounds of lettuce each day in the cool months – produce that is distributed throughout the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Europe.
A nationwide outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach in 2006 resulted in producers working overtime to develop new strategies to protect human health from pathogens, Nolte said, resulting in more effective food safety practices.
He said it is critical to work with researchers and producers to ensure that food products are safe and affordable to consumers. “No one wants to pay $3 for a head of lettuce,’’ Nolte added.
Sadhana Ravishankar, assistant professor of veterinary science and microbiology and a member of the consortium, is studying how plant essential oils, spices and plant extracts as well as copper alloys can control salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, L. monocytogenes and other bacteria in food and on food contact surfaces.
She also is studying a secondary impact – a reduction in carcinogenic compounds in grilled beef patties with the use of plant extracts, essential oils and spices.
“Scientists who are working in food safety are widespread throughout the University of Arizona, and the Food Safety Consortium brings everyone together for important collaborations,’’ Ravishankar said. “When we all come together we can do a lot more than we can as individuals.’’