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Sales of organic and natural foods are booming, with double-digit percentage gains almost every year. Surprisingly, of all the organic and natural foods available on the market, the demand for meat products is the biggest. As more and more food processors scramble to meet that demand, they’re encountering a special challenge. Because they must process these meats according to organic and natural label requirements, they are unable to use the vast majority of the antimicrobial agents employed in standard meat processing. The trick is to find alternative materials and processes that deliver safety in keeping with organic and natural label requirements—but also create products with the look and flavor that consumers value. It’s a challenge that Jeff Sindelar, a CALS animal science professor and UW-Extension meat specialist, and Kathy Glass, associate director of the Food Research Institute, are taking on as a team. “Our lab is trying to identify ingredients from natural sources that have antimicrobial efficacy—and by ‘antimicrobial’ I’m referring to ingredients that can prove the safety by either suppressing, inhibiting or destroying any pathogenic bacteria—and utilizing those types of ingredients in processed meat products that are labeled natural and organic,” Sindelar says. Those natural sources include cranberry concentrate, grape seed oil, tea tree extract and a number of other naturally based organic acids, Sindelar says. The team has been testing their ability to fight bacteria in products including bacon, ham, hot dogs, bologna, smoked sausage and lunch meat. Finding the natural candidate that can combat bacteria without affecting the color or taste of food can be a challenge, says Sindelar.
Kathy Glass, associate director of the Food Research Institute, recently worked with animal sciences professor Jeff Sindelar to ensure the safety of organic meats by developing antimicrobials from fruits and vegetables. Photo by Sevie Kenyon/UW-Madison CALS.

It’s hard to believe now, but when the Food Research Institute (FRI) was established in 1946—two years prior to the founding of the World Health Organization—botulism and salmonellosis were poorly understood, and staphylococcal food poisoning was just beginning to be elucidated. Many otherwise well-known diseases were only alleged to be food-borne, and the causes of many known foodborne illnesses had yet to be established.

Now the oldest U.S. academic program focused on food safety, FRI moved from the University of Chicago to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1966 under the leadership of bacteriology professor Edwin “Mike” Foster.

And ever since, FRI has served as a portal to UW–Madison’s food safety expertise for food companies in Wisconsin, in the U.S. and around the world. Housed within CALS, the institute is an interdepartmental entity with faculty from bacteriology, animal sciences, food science, plant pathology, medical microbiology and immunology, and pathobiological sciences, drawing not only from CALS but also from the School of Medicine and Public Health and the School of Veterinary Medicine.

FRI offers a wealth of educational opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students. Since 2011, FRI has coordinated its Undergraduate Research Program in Food Safety, which provides students with hands-on experience in basic science and applied investigations of food safety issues. FRI faculty and staff have trained hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, post-docs, visiting scientists and research specialists throughout the years, and FRI alumni have gone on to hold positions in industry, government and academia across the country and abroad.

In keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, FRI’s reach extends well beyond campus boundaries through industry partnerships, especially with its 40 sponsor companies. The Applied Food Safety Lab and laboratories of FRI faculty collaborate with food processors to identify safe food formulations and processing techniques. The institute also provides outreach and training to both food companies and the greater scientific community through meetings, short courses, conferences and symposia.

Lab workers and undergraduates at FRI inoculated applies with Listeria in a study that revealed the cause of a Listeria outbreak in caramel apples in 2014. Photo courtesy of UW-Madsion/FRI.

“FRI is an outstanding example of how a public-private partnership can benefit the academic mission of UW–Madison and the needs of the Wisconsin food industry,” says FRI director Charles Czuprynski.

During the past 70 years, FRI has made many insights into the causes and transmission of foodborne diseases. Early on, FRI research established methods to identify and detect staphylococcal enterotoxins. Work conducted by FRI scientists pioneered understanding of the molecular mechanisms of botulinum toxin production and led to the harness of the toxin for biomedical uses. FRI faculty are leaders in mycotoxin research and have made important contributions to understanding the shedding of E. coliO157 by cattle, survival of Salmonella in stressful conditions and the role of Listeria in foodborne disease. FRI research also identified the health benefits of conjugated linoleic acid in foods of animal origin and conditions that might result in formation of undesirable components in processed foods.

Looking to the future, FRI research is investigating novel mechanisms to prevent food-borne pathogen growth in meat and dairy products, interaction of plant pathogens and pests with human food-borne pathogens, food-animal antibiotic alternatives, and the role of the microbiome in health and disease.

FRI will celebrate its 70th anniversary at its 2016 Spring Meeting May 18–19 at the Fluno Center on the UW–Madison campus. There’s also a reception on May 17 at Dejope Hall, near the grounds of the original FRI building. For more information about FRI and anniversary events, visit

This story was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Grow magazine.