Researchers investigate ways to detect deliberate food contamination

The University of Wisconsin-Madison will use its share of a three-year, $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (HS) to investigate ways to detect intentional contamination of the nation’s food supply.

Their work is part of the University Center for Post-Harvest Food Protection and Defense, a national consortium of academic, private and government partners housed at the University of Minnesota. The center will establish best practices and attract new researchers to manage and respond to food contamination events, both intentional and naturally occurring. UW-Madison is a partner institution in the center.

On campus, College of Engineering experts in sensing technology will collaborate with College of Agricultural and Life Sciences experts on food pathogens and toxins to develop a variety of sensing systems that can respond rapidly to food contamination. Research will be aimed at improving the reliability and the speed at which biological toxins and other chemical agents can be detected.

David Beebe, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Eric Johnson, professor of food microbiology and toxicology, have developed detection devices for monitoring a host’s response to toxins. “This center will allow us to work to adapt these methods for use in food protection as well as explore new methods,” says Beebe.

One solution might be to improve food packaging by including sensors that could detect when the package’s integrity is compromised or the contents contaminated. “It is extremely important to ensure that a food product has not been tampered with,” says Michael Pariza, a professor of food microbiology and toxicology and campus principal investigator.

While research outcomes could address contamination detection in everything from fresh produce to canned goods, including imported items, UW-Madison investigators will focus on ways to protect the milk supply.

Other biosecurity research efforts of the overall center, which is comprised of more than 90 investigators, include informatics, scenario planning and epidemiological modeling, among others. Michigan State University and North Dakota State University also are partner institutions, while experts from 12 additional universities, independent research facilities, state health and agriculture agencies, professional organizations, agriculture and food industry companies, and private consultants also will participate.

Pariza, who directs the nationally recognized Food Research Institute, says UW-Madison investigators” contribution will be substantial. “The overall product of this research is going to be safer food,” he says.

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