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.

Meat, With a Touch of Fruit

When Jeff Sindelar talks about the ingredients he’s working with, you’d think he was making juice. Not quite. He’s adding things like cranberry concentrate, cherry powder, lemon extract and celery powder to meat.

But Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and a UW–Extension meat specialist, is not adding them for flavor. He’s looking at ways to ensure that meat products labeled “organic” and “natural” are safe to eat.

Sales of organic and natural foods are booming, with double-digit percentage gains almost every year. 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 antimicrobial agents employed in standard meat processing.

“Most ingredients and technologies that serve as antimicrobials—ingredients that can improve safety by either suppressing, inhibiting or destroying any pathogenic bacteria—are not able to be used in products labeled ‘natural’ and ‘organic,’” Sindelar says.

The trick is to find alternative materials and processes that deliver safety—and also offer the look and flavor that consumers value.

Sindelar has identified some options. “A number of different natural-based organic acids offer a significant improvement to food safety,” says Sindelar, who is working in partnership with Kathy Glass, associate director of the CALS-based Food Research Institute. “We have tested a number of different ingredients such as cranberry concentrate, grape seed oil and tea tree extract.”

Some compounds from natural sources work as well as such standard preservatives as sodium nitrite, sodium lactate or sodium diacetate, to name a few. But it can take heavy doses of some natural ingredients to provide equivalent results—causing some undesirable side effects.

“Cranberry concentrate is a very effective natural antimicrobial,” says Sindelar. “But if you use the amount needed to significantly control the growth of bacteria, the meat turns cranberry red.”

Part of the researchers’ work involves “challenge testing”—adding pathogenic microbes to the meat to make sure that a given ingredient prevents the growth of bacteria throughout processing and storage. If substantial numbers of microbes grow, that ingredient is ruled out as being an effective natural antimicrobial.

Successful tests have already led to new products. Cherry powder combined with celery powder, for example, “is already being adopted by processors because of how effective these ingredients are in improving meat safety and quality,” notes Sindelar. And the search for other natural additives continues.

Both researchers are certain they’ll find success—particularly as they continue working in partnership with producers in the field.

“Collaborative research between the university and industry is essential to understand the synergistic effects of these ingredients—and to ensure the safety and quality of natural and organic meats,” says Glass.