Published on 08/04/11

UGA, others granted $25 million to study foodborne viruses

By Sharon Dowdy

Most people have heard of food pathogens like E. coli and salmonella, but the majority of food disease cases are caused by human noroviruses, not food pathogens. Many of these cases are the result of poor hand hygiene practices during food service, said University of Georgia food scientist Jennifer Cannon.

For this reason UGA scientists will use their share of a $25 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to search for ways to reduce the number of virus-caused foodborne illnesses in the United States.

Easily transmitted from person to person, noroviruses causes 23 million illnesses each year, and 5.2 million of those are foodborne, Cannon said. They are the leading cause of acute gastroenteritis (stomach flu) in the U.S.

A researcher at the UGA Center for Food Safety in Griffin, Ga., Cannon will lead UGA’s participation in the grant project. North Carolina State University is the lead institution on the five-year project. The individuals working on the project form the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Food Virology Collaborative, a team of more than 30 collaborators from academia, industry and government.

"This is the second large NIFA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative award made to scientists of our Center for Food Safety and Department of Food Science and Technology in the same fiscal year,” said Harald Scherm, assistant dean for research with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, “underscoring the quality and national importance of their research and outreach programs. It is especially impressive that Dr. Cannon, as a junior scientist, was so successful in this highly competitive grants program."

The team’s goal is to increase understanding of the viruses; educate producers, processors and food handlers on safe handling and preparation of food; and develop control and management strategies to reduce food contamination before and after harvesting.

“Most public-health professionals, food-industry professionals and consumers continue to believe that bacteria, not viruses, are the most common cause of foodborne disease,” said Lee-Ann Jaykus, a NC State professor and lead investigator on the project. “This is in large part because human noroviruses are difficult to study.”

Noroviruses cannot be cultivated outside of the human body. Only a few commercial diagnostic tests exist. And few scientists are trained specifically in food virology.

“Norovirus causes what’s called the ‘cruise ship virus’ for the public attention it gets for sometimes sickening hundreds or even thousands of cruise passengers and ruining family vacations,” Cannon said. “However, far more outbreaks are associated with hospitals, nursing homes, schools, daycares and food.”

At UGA, Cannon will focus her research on detection and intervention methods.

Norovirus is more frequently associated with foods that aren’t cooked, such as salads, deli meats, fresh produce and raw oysters. Symptoms typically show within 12 to 48 hours of exposure and include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and, occasionally, fever.

If a family member becomes ill, the whole family usually follows suit. To reduce the risks, “you should wash your hands every time after you use the restroom or change diapers and before you touch your mouth or smoke a cigarette and every time you eat food,” Cannon said.

UGA Cooperative Extension hand washing guidelines say to use warm, soapy water and rub your hands together while you sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Ethanol sanitizers should be used as a supplement, not a replacement for hand washing.

In addition to UGA and NC State, the core team includes scientists from Clemson University, Baylor College of Medicine, Emory University, Research Triangle Institute, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina Central University and the Institute for Food Safety and Health at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Other key collaborators are from the University of Delaware, Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, the FDA and USDA Agricultural Research Service, Arizona State University, New Mexico State University, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Rutgers University. Various industrial and government stakeholders will serve the collaborative in advisory capacities.

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

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