Food safety is focus of $2.3 million in grants

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An Ohio State University scientist and colleagues have garnered two food safety grants totaling $2.3 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The first is a $1.8 million four-year grant on "Reducing the Transmission of AMR (antimicrobial-resistant) Organisms by Wildlife within the Food Supply -- A Research, Control and Outreach Strategy." The goal is to determine the extent to which wildlife contribute to antimicrobial-resistant bacteria colonization in livestock, and how much that can spread to humans.

The problem is significant: Overall, the economic health-care burden caused by AMR bacteria is more than $4 billion annually, according to some estimates.

"In this study, we're looking at food safety with a 'one-medicine' approach where you take into consideration not just animals, not just people, not just the environment, but everything that can have an effect on food safety," said Jeff LeJeune, the study's principal investigator and a microbiologist and veterinary scientist with the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster. "What we're trying to do is identify the interface between wildlife and livestock that carry AMR strains and how they might be spread."

In a previous study, LeJeune demonstrated that European starlings around livestock farms were responsible for spreading E. coli O157:H7 to farm animals. This study will examine the birds' role in the spread of AMR bacteria in livestock and dairy facilities, as well as the role raccoons, which are commonly seen on farms, might play. In addition, the scientists will collect samples from the kitchens of farm workers who have direct contact with livestock to determine how easily AMR bacteria might spread into households.

Working with LeJeune at Ohio State are Tom Wittum, professor of veterinary preventive medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Song Liang, assistant professor of environmental health sciences in the College of Public Health. Also involved are researchers from Colorado State University, the University of Guelph, the University of British Columbia, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The other grant is a three-year, $500,000 award from a $5.4 million University of Maryland study on "Developing Scientifically Based Consensus Food Safety Metrics for Leafy Greens and Tomatoes." (See the University of Maryland news release at http://newsdesk.umd.edu/bigissues/release.cfm?ArticleID=2567 ). Funding is from the USDA's Specialty Crop Research Initiative. LeJeune said the two grants are complementary, as one aim of this proposal explores the impact of wildlife intrusion into vegetable fields.

"The big concern is about new national standards for growers that are being discussed," LeJeune said. "The guidelines they're talking about are based on scientific principles but not on exact data, and they seem to be designed to work in states like California and Arizona, but they're not necessarily appropriate for other states, including Ohio."

For example, the upcoming standards will likely include guidelines to keep all livestock out of areas where produce is grown, in an effort to prevent E. coli contamination. But a previous study LeJeune conducted found that horses -- often used on Amish farms -- are unlikely sources of such contamination.

"We found only one horse that tested positive on one day of the study, and that horse happened to be stabled with a goat which also tested positive, LeJeune said. As ruminant animals, goats are more susceptible to E. coli contamination; the study's findings indicate that the potential new rule is too broad.

In the current study, LeJeune also will examine contaminated water and its effect on growing lettuce. "We'll subject lettuce plots to manure-laced water at different concentrations to see if it makes a difference," he said. Results could be different in Ohio's climate than in states such as California, "where the sun beats down all day."

Besides Ohio State and University of Maryland, scientists from Rutgers University, the University of California Davis, the University of Delaware, the University of Florida, the Food and Drug Administration, and the USDA also are participating in the study.

LeJeune is a professor with the Food Animal Health Research Program at OARDC and also has an appointment with Ohio State University Extension. OARDC and OSU Extension are the research and outreach arms, respectively, of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.


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