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.

To Eat It—Or Not

Food engineer Sundaram Gunasekaran, a professor of biological systems engineering, works with gold. But you won’t find the shiny yellow stuff in his lab; instead, the vials on his bench are mostly purple and red. Gunasekaran works with tiny pieces of gold—nanoparticles—that come in almost every color except gold. And those colors can tell a story.

Gunasekaran’s research focuses on food safety concerns, such as whether a food product was transported and stored properly or whether it has become contaminated. But how can a producer or consumer easily know a product’s history and whether it is
safe to eat? That’s where gold nanoparticles come in handy.

“The color of gold nanoparticles will change depending on the size and shape of the particle,” explains Gunasekaran. “At different temperatures, depending on how long you let the particles grow, they acquire different sizes and shapes. And that changes their colors.”

Gunasekaran’s lab is using those color changes for a difficult task—tracking the time and temperature history of a food product as it is packaged, transported and stored. Up to now similar sensors have given consumers some of this information, but they can miss such critical events as, for example, a short temperature spike that could be enough to kick-start the growth of a dangerous microorganism.

The sensors that Gunasekaran and his team are developing provide a more complete and accurate story. The new sensor can differentiate between food stored at high temperatures first and low temperatures second versus a product stored first at low temperatures and then at high temperatures. And that’s thanks to the properties of the gold nano-particles. The color of the first sample would be different than that of the second because of how and when the particles changed size and shape.

“We’re able to do this because the nanoparticle synthesis is affected by how the particles grow initially versus later,” explains Gunasekaran. “We call this the thermal history indicator, or THI.”

These gold nanoparticle sensors are being patented through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), and students in Gunasekaran’s lab won a UW–Madison Discovery to Product award. The student team also won a People’s Choice
award in the 2014 Agricultural Innovation Prize competition.

They are now working to further develop and optimize the system. Since different food products travel through different channels, some sensors will be best used to track long-distance travel over the course of a month, while others will track history for only a matter of hours. Some sensors will work best in frozen storage and others will be optimized for various room temperatures.

The goal of optimization is a simple-to-use biosensor customized for any given food product. Gunasekaran envisions the sensors—now being developed as self-adhesive dots or stickers—being used anywhere along the food production channel. Producers, packagers, transporters and even consumers could easily use the biosensors to understand the thermal history of their product, saving time and money and avoiding recalls and health issues.

“There are a number of ways to use this technology, and making a food product’s history easy to see is the key,” says Gunasekaran. “Food is being wasted because people are throwing it out according to an expiration date, or people are getting sick because they eat food that’s gone bad. Those things can be avoided by having a better product safety indicator.”

Partners in Food Safety

When the managers of University Housing Dining and Culinary Services (DCS) decided a few years ago to go above and beyond state requirements in employee food safety certification, they turned to
the CALS Department of Food Science for help.

The “ServSafe” certification program, produced by the National Restaurant Association, is offered nationwide. By Wisconsin state law, food service operations need at least one staff member to be certified.

But DCS has expanded that requirement as a matter of quality improvement. “We wanted to provide the people on our front lines more tools to help us assure food safety at all our service points,” says DCS associate director Julie Luke. “Over the last three to five years we’ve probably doubled the number of staff who have food safety training built into the credentials for their position.” Even for positions where certification is not required it is offered as a professional development option, notes Luke.

DCS has some 100 full-time classified staff preparing and serving an average of 95,000 food orders a week through residence halls, catering and other venues on campus, assisted by an army of 1,200 student workers.

Expanding training was and is a tall order—but DCS has an able partner in food science instructor and registered dietitian Monica Theis, who not only teaches the two-day certification class but also recruits her undergraduate dietetics students to serve as tutors. A number of food service employees have low literacy or English as a second language. For those groups both the instruction and certification exam can pose a challenge.

Dietetics junior Heang Lee Tan worked one-on-one with one such employee, helping her take notes, prepare notecards and take a practice exam.

“It was really eye-opening for me to see how hard it was to implement a food safety training program. I saw how literacy became such a challenge,” says Tan. “It makes me more sensitive to the great diversity of staff working in an organization. Having that knowledge will make me a better employee or manager in the future.”

Student tutors like Tan have boosted the success rate of DCS employees in passing the exam, notes Theis. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

Theis has involved undergrads in other food safety efforts. For example, Lori Homes BS’13 partnered with DCS and University Health Services to design an online food safety training module now used by DCS student workers, who formerly had to get that training in person. Homes also served as a student supervisor at DCS.

The food safety collaboration is one of many between DCS and food science. Theis trains DCS staff on a number of food-related topics, including allergies. DCS administration offers work opportunities to dietetics students interested in one day joining large-scale food and dining operations. Recently DCS executive chef Jeff Orr worked with food science students on a contest to create a new hamburger recipe for Gilly’s Frozen Custard restaurants.

Theis welcomes those collaborations. “We have opportunities right here to partner with campus units and contribute to our little community,” she says. “Our students can make a tremendous difference.”

Give: Supporting Food Safety

When Kikkoman wanted to establish a naturally brewed soy sauce plant in Walworth, Wisconsin—an operation that was to become the world’s largest—the company had a top-notch consultant at CALS to help them out.

That expert was professor Edwin “Mike” Foster, a noted bacteriologist who was the first director of the Food Research Institute (FRI) and the person responsible for FRI moving to UW–Madison from the University of Chicago in 1966.

“Mike was invaluable in offering guidance on how to address and validate regulatory issues related to the safety of soy sauce as Kikkoman went through the process of gaining FDA approval,” says FRI director Charles Czuprynski. Over the years UW–Madison has continued to play a role in testing potential new uses of sauce and products derived in the fermentation process, he notes.

Out of long-standing gratitude, the Kikkoman Foods Foundation has named a new scholarship fund in Foster’s honor. The “Kikkoman Scholarship in Honor of Dr. Edwin (Mike) Foster,” as it is called, will be awarded by the FRI each year “to a deserving undergraduate student with a demonstrated interest in food microbiology and food safety,” says Czuprynski. The award amount will be in the range of $1,000 to $1,200.

Czuprynski regards the Kikkoman plant as a remarkable Wisconsin success story—and a tribute to Kikkoman’s long-range leadership vision, supportive relationship with their workers and cooperation with local businesses and communities. “This scholarship is just one example of their generous support of UW–Madison and the UW System,” Czuprynski says.

The UW Foundation maintains more than 6,000 gift funds that provide critical resources for the educational and research activities of CALS.

Contributions to the Kikkoman Scholarship in Honor of Dr. Edwin (Mike) Foster fund are welcome at http://go.wisc.edu/08c3m5.

If you wish to establish your own scholarship fund, contact Sara Anderson at the University of Wisconsin Foundation, sara.anderson@supportuw.org, (608) 263-9537.

To make a more general contribution to scholarships at CALS, visit the Agricultural and Life Sciences Scholarship Fund at http://go.wisc.edu/3q63sr.

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.