By: David G. White, Ph.D.
Last week, FDA scientists and researchers presented more than 160 abstracts at the 4th Annual Food and Drug Administration Foods and Veterinary Medicine Science and Research Conference: that’s more than 160 research projects focused on protecting the health of people and animals. The presentations and posters at the conference were shared among approximately 300 FDA researchers and other staff members who came to hear the latest on our science and research accomplishments.
FDA research in the food and veterinary medicine arena covers many different fields of study, from foodborne pathogens to nanotechnology, food allergens, dietary supplements and much more. For example, research is being conducted to improve detection methods for numerous microbial pathogens and chemical hazards that may contaminate the foods you and your pets eat. The diverse research portfolio of this conference showcased all the advancements in science and technology that the FDA is investing in to protect the health of people and animals.
The research presented was the highlight of the conference, but we are making equally important advancements as an organization. We have come very far in terms of our communication and collaboration among foods, cosmetics, and animal health researchers across different components of the FDA. There are so many parts of FDA involved in these areas of research that our top priority is to be sure we are working together and using our resources strategically. We must make sure our projects are more than just interesting – they must be focused on our highest public health priorities.
One of the major themes of the conference was that partnerships are critical to fostering innovation. This was emphasized by Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Mike Taylor, who noted in his opening remarks the terrific effort of everyone who worked on the Whole Genome Sequencing project – a major undertaking that was recently a finalist and a Secretary’s Pick for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Innovates award.
This project was launched to showcase the capacity of this technology to revolutionize foodborne disease tracking, and it was a true collaboration among many laboratories within FDA (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and Office of Regulatory Affairs), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS).
One of the goals of our Whole Genome Sequencing initiative is to further develop and roll out a pathogen detection network called the GenomeTrakr, which would store genomic data of common foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella and Listeria. This data would enable FDA scientists to determine the exact order of the molecules in an organism’s genetic material, information which can then be used to identify specific strains of bacteria or viruses in foods that are causing illness. Once the strains are identified, scientists from FDA, CDC, USDA and the various states can quickly and efficiently trace the strain back to the origin of contamination so that we can improve the safety of our food supply and protect people from becoming ill.
As Dr. Eric Brown, the director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) Division of Microbiology in the Office of Regulatory Science, explains: “What genome sequencing allows us to do with food traceback is unprecedented. It’s like upgrading from an old backyard telescope to the Hubble.”
The projects presented at this year’s conference highlight the progress we have made, and the progress we want to continue to make, to expand our partnerships beyond FDA and our sister agencies, such as CDC and USDA, into academia and the private sector.
It’s exciting to see the headway we are making and the commitment of our researchers to protect and promote the health of humans and animals.
David G. White, Ph.D., is Chief Science Officer and Research Director, FDA Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine