By: David G. White, Ph.D.
An estimated one in six Americans is sickened by foodborne illness annually, resulting in about 3,000 deaths each year. To keep our food safe, FDA wants to develop faster and more sensitive technologies to detect contaminants such as harmful bacteria. That’s why the agency is launching its first Food Safety Challenge, an effort to strengthen our food supply by fostering innovation in technologies that will more quickly detect pathogens in produce.
The first challenge will focus on Salmonella, one of our most pervasive food-safety problems today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses in the United States every year, with about 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths. Salmonella infections have been associated with eating foods, such as meat, eggs and fresh produce, contaminated with animal or human feces. The main causes of Salmonella illness are poultry and eggs. FDA’s goal is to prevent Salmonella contamination from happening, but we need to detect it quickly and efficiently when it is present in order to remove foods from the marketplace.
Through this innovation challenge, FDA wants to engage with others outside the agency who are not traditionally working in food safety—be they scientists, academicians, entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers or physicists—to find an ingenious approach to this problem so we can detect the disease-causing bacteria before they reach the consumer.
We’re focusing on produce first because it has a major impact on public health. According to the CDC, contaminated produce causes 46% of foodborne illness and 23% of foodborne illness-related deaths. But detecting low levels of Salmonella in produce can be like finding a needle in a haystack: difficult, expensive and time-consuming. Even a simple tomato might have up to a billion surface bacteria that do not cause harm to humans. Quickly detecting just the few types of bacteria that do cause harm, like Salmonella, is a daunting task.
Accurate detection is our highest priority. But rapid detection is also important. Testing for microbial contamination of produce currently can take up to several days. Meanwhile, the produce may sit in a warehouse, where its shelf life decreases with each passing day. Consumers can’t eat it, and producers can’t sell it. Those limitations affect the economy – from consumers to producers to farmers.
Maybe other scientists and innovators outside FDA have revolutionary techniques that they never thought of applying to food safety. We hope so. There are many new technologies that might be invaluable to our field laboratories, where we’re testing at least hundreds of pounds of produce a week.
We have already conducted a significant amount of research on food safety here at FDA. We have a lot of answers, but not all of them. Our hope is that this challenge will provide solutions that would increase the speed of FDA’s detection efforts without sacrificing specificity and sensitivity or comparability to reference methods. The challenge is open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents 18 and older and to entities incorporated in and maintaining a primary place of business in the United States, with certain exclusions for federal entities, employees and grantees. Participants will submit cutting-edge techniques to speed detection of Salmonella in produce. Their work will be evaluated by experts in food safety and foodborne pathogen detection from FDA, CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The winners (and there could be more than one) will share a total prize pool of $500,000.
These ideas will not only benefit U.S. consumers, but their effects will ultimately be felt worldwide. Everybody wants safe food, not just in the United States, but all over the world.
We hope that the 2014 FDA Food Safety Challenge creates an avenue for ideas and dialogue. We want to learn from others and adapt best practices so consumers can continue to trust the foods they eat.
To learn more about, and sign up for, the Food Safety Challenge, visit www.foodsafetychallenge.com.
David G. White, Ph.D., is the chief science officer and research director in FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine