Keeping Us Safe

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.

“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. coli O157 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 fri.wisc.edu.

Detectives in Training

In just nine weeks this past summer, senior Katie Kennedy tackled an important food safety research project, one that may change the way some large food companies process their deli-style turkey meat. Not bad for a summer job.

“It was my impression that this was just going to be a pilot project, but we’re actually going to publish the results,” says Kennedy, an animal sciences major.

Kennedy was one of seven undergraduates who interned at the internationally respected Food Research Institute (FRI), which is housed in CALS and focuses on microbial food safety. The internship program, which debuted this summer, had students investigating everything from Salmonella and E. coli to Clostridium and Aspergillus.

“Training is an important part of the FRI mission,” says Chuck Czuprynski, the institute’s director. “So we decided to create an opportunity where young people can learn about—and deal with—real food safety problems.”

In Kennedy’s case, she worked with FRI mentors and scientists at Oscar Mayer Foods in Madison to tackle a challenge faced by many large meat processing facilities: keeping the growth of the foodborne pathogen Clostridium perfringens in check as large volumes of uncured, processed meats are cooled after cooking. Cooling is energy-intensive, and Kennedy’s project showed that plants can cool their deli-style turkey more slowly—but still safely—if they add some potassium lactate, a commonly used antimicrobial, to the meat.

“Oscar Mayer waited eagerly for Katie’s results,” says FRI assistant director Kathy Glass, who co-mentored Kennedy. “They provide Oscar Mayer, as well as other FRI sponsors in the meat industry, with the safety data they need to show inspectors that the cooling system they’d like to implement is indeed safe.”

Another goal of the internship program is to raise awareness about academic and professional career opportunities in the food safety field. To that end, the interns met weekly to hear from scientists in the field and also toured a handful of food processing plants.

“I was surprised that every place we visited had microbiologists and food scientists. I don’t think people realize those types of jobs are available at food processing plants,” says Brad Gietman, a medical microbiology and immunology major who spent the summer studying how long, filamentous Salmonella cells—which are found on certain foods—sometimes break apart into scores of daughter cells, increasing the risk of foodborne illness.

Both Gietman and Kennedy are continuing their lab work this fall, and Kennedy is now leaning toward doing a yearlong internship at a food company before going to veterinary school.