UGA researcher to study parasites in shellfish

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

University of Georgia parasitologist Ynes Ortega will lead a research team looking into whether parasites that are filtered from the water into oysters and other shellfish are infectious to humans.

"This is an unknown area, and that's why this research is so crucial," said Ortega, a scientist with the UGA Center for Food Safety in Griffin, Ga. "We need to know if this is an area of concern for the public's health."

$500,000 USDA grant

Ortega has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She will conduct the three-year project along with UGA food scientist Yao-Wen Huang and researchers from the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"First we will go to the areas where shellfish are normally harvested," she said, "along the Georgia coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast. Then we will examine the specimens for the presence of parasites. We will also be evaluating methods to inactivate parasites in shellfish."

Foodborne illnesses linked to parasites can take up to a week to strike, Ortega said. Illnesses caused by foodborne pathogens result in symptoms much sooner.

Researching parasites in food

At UGA, Ortega's research focuses on detecting parasites in food products and environmental samples that cause diseases in humans and animals. As part of these efforts, she is working to develop new detection methods.

"I'm also studying the risk factors associated with parasitic foodborne transmission," she said. "Our Center's goal is to help the industry develop safer produce and food products and provide the industry with testing, development and evaluation methods to inactivate parasites on our food."

In 1993, Ortega was part of a team of scientists that first identified Cyclospora, a parasite linked to outbreaks in raspberries, basil and lettuce.

The parasite was falsely linked to strawberries in a 1995 Texas outbreak. "The strawberries were blamed," Ortega said, "and strawberry growers lost $20 million in one week.

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.