The 2014 FDA Food Safety Challenge: And the Finalists Are…

By: Palmer Orlandi, Ph.D.

I am delighted to announce the finalists in FDA’s first Food Safety Challenge, a ground-breaking effort to better protect our food supply by fostering innovation in technologies that will more quickly detect pathogens in produce.

Palmer OrlandiLast September, we invited scientists, academics, entrepreneurs, and innovators from all disciplines to compete by submitting concepts that could improve and accelerate the detection of these disease-causing bacteria in foods. We received 49 submissions.

The five finalists whose proposals will enter the next phase of the Food Safety Challenge are teams of researchers from these companies and universities:

  • Auburn University, Auburn, Ala.
  • Pronucleotein Inc., San Antonio, Texas
  • Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.
  • University of California, Davis, Calif.; Dr. Bart Weimer; and Mars, Inc.
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Ill.; and Purdue University

(Purdue is represented twice, teaming with University of Illinois colleagues in one proposal and going solo in another, with different researchers on each team.)

Each team has developed ingenious new technologies for detecting food pathogens that could be real game changers in our ongoing fight against foodborne illness. They will each receive $20,000 and advance to the next stage in the Challenge. The winner or winners (there can be more than one) will share the remainder of the $500,000 total prize.

But before I describe the next step, let me remind you why this Challenge is vital to FDA’s mission to promote and protect the public health.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that foodborne illness sickens 1 in 6 Americans  annually, resulting in about 3,000 deaths.
  • The overall negative economic impact of foodborne illness in the United States may be as high as $77 billion per year.
  • Salmonella is the leading cause of death and of hospitalization related to foodborne illness.

We believe that by reaching out through this Challenge to entrepreneurs, academia, and the larger scientific, innovation and problems-solving communities, we can view our food safety problems through a different lens. It’s a way to consider approaches, and possible solutions, through the eyes of innovative thinkers, and to use technologies we may not have considered.

What Happens Next?

Now that our panel of expert judges from FDA, CDC, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has narrowed the competitive field down, we enter the Field Accelerator phase of the Challenge. With the guidance of FDA food safety and pathogen-testing experts, finalists will

  • refine their submissions,
  • clarify their concepts,
  • maximize their impact on food safety,
  • check that they are in line with FDA’s needs and capabilities,
  • and ensure that the proposed ideas can be reasonably executed.

The finalists will participate in a “boot camp” with FDA experts on May 13, 2015 to help strengthen their concepts and applicability to FDA’s testing process. “Demo Day” will be held on July 7, 2015 in College Park, Md. The finalists will present their improved proposals to the judges and a live audience in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition headquarters.

I, for one, can’t wait to see the solutions the finalists will come up with. We believe that by thinking outside the box, we can find new ways to help assure the American public that the foods they eat and serve their families are safe.

Palmer Orlandi, Ph.D., is Acting Chief Science Officer and Research Director in the FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine.

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