A scientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing is project director of a five-year, $9.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study pathogen threats of low-moisture foods such as cereal, flour, dried fruits, and nuts. These products have been recalled repeatedly in the last few years.
Bradley Marks, professor and chair of the department, is working with economists, engineers, microbiologists, consumer educators, and risk modelers. The team is working to reduce the risk of Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria from harvest to consumer. The institute has designated the project as a Center of Excellence, meaning it has high merit value and meets criteria for broad impact.
“Just being an engineer with a better piece of equipment isn’t going to solve this food safety problem. We’ve got to look at the entire system,” Marks says. “It’s a problem that may not always be a headline, but it’s a huge economic impact for these companies.”
Low-moisture foods are used as ingredients in a variety of products, so if one supplier issues a recall, numerous items can be affected. One recall or outbreak could put a small operation out of business.
“If you’re a Fortune 100, publicly traded company, you can likely sustain a $100 million impact. You don’t like it, and the stock market doesn’t like it, but you can still exist,” Marks says. “If you’re a family-owned private operation and you get hit with a recall, and worse, you get hit with an outbreak linked back to your product, it’s possibly a death sentence for a company of that scale.”
E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria can’t be completely eliminated from these dry ingredients, but their occurrence can be reduced.
“In five or six years, we will not rid the earth of pathogens in dry foods, because they’re going to be out there,” he says. “But if we can make a dent that reduces outbreaks of illness associated with this product category to protect public health and reduce the risk of recalls and the negative economic impact to the companies making the food, then this $9.8 million grant has paid for itself many times over.”
A major component of the grant is creating a food safety culture, or an established understanding of the importance of food safety, as a measure to reduce outbreaks.
“You really have to make sure everybody from harvest to the consumer understands their role in ensuring food safety,” Marks says. “We will develop training and educational resources that help advance that goal.”
Other researchers involved are from Purdue University, Ohio State University, Washington State University, University of California-Davis, the University of Arkansas, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. North Carolina State University will conduct the external evaluation of the project impacts.