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Monday, September 27, 2021

Western Center for Food Safety at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine partners with FDA

The partnership is intended to research E. coli outbreaks in the lettuce industry and is one of four FDA centers for excellence nationwide

The Western Center for Food Safety at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine recently partnered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to research the role of E. coli in food safety. 

The center began cooperating with the FDA in 2008. As one of four FDA centers for excellence in the country, it helps the FDA implement preventative measures under the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA). This includes monitoring and researching outbreaks of E. coli in the produce industry. 

Professor Michele Jay-Russell, the program manager at the Western Center for Food Safety, specializes in veterinary public health and foodborne pathogens at UC Davis. Jay-Russell and professor Rob Atwill, a principal investigator at the university who is researching zoonotic pathogens, spoke about the importance of the partnership.

Between August and October 2020, 40 people across 19 states were infected with E. coli. Of the 20 people hospitalized, four developed a form of kidney failure. However, no deaths were reported. Researchers are currently focusing on ways to prevent lettuce from cross-contaminating.

This year, the FDA outlined an action plan to prevent further Shiga toxin-producing E. coli outbreaks, particularly in lettuce crops. 

“Lettuce is grown outside,” Jay-Russell said. “It’s not a sterile environment, so you’re going to have different inputs. [The pre-harvest environment] is complex. That’s where a lot of this project is focusing. It’s a very high-visibility project because it’s devastating for the [lettuce] industry to have outbreaks linked to agriculture systems despite tremendous efforts going into protecting the plants from contamination.” 

Atwill explained that California produces up to 50% of the country’s lettuce. Any outbreaks that occur are not only damaging to those who experience E. coli, but to public perception of and confidence in the industry. 

“It’s rewarding to do high-impact research,” Atwill said. “We’re the salad bowl for the nation, and the work that we do in partnership with the FDA really has the opportunity to help people. We collaborate with the lettuce industry. We’re all frustrated with this continuing problem.” 

According to Atwill, there have been around 2-3 outbreaks of E. coli per year. Even so, it can be challenging to trace the source of the bacteria since lettuce is broadly distributed throughout the country. 

“The way our distribution works, it can be very hard to trace back,” Atwill said. “If someone gets sick at a restaurant in Boston, you have to go all the way back to where the lettuce was grown.”

Graduate students also participate in the research and have the opportunity to work with FDA scientists and other federal government officials, according to Atwill. 

“It’s very dynamic, fairly stressful,” Atwill said. “You’ve got to be spot-on, because this is real stuff, this is people’s lives.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has often prevented field research because of social distancing guidelines and travel restrictions. Still, Atwill highlighted graduate students’ commitment to their work despite these limitations, mentioning one student who took water samples in the Salinas Valley hills despite the rain. 

Jay-Russell emphasized the complexity of the issues at play in food safety. 

“This is not a simple story of feedlots or factory farms,” Jay-Russell said, referring to popular theories about the involvement of the cattle industry in recent outbreaks of E. coli. “[The work] is dynamic and challenging because we don’t always agree, but the center really prides itself on working closely with the [lettuce industry] and being objective.” 

Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — campus@theaggie.org 

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