Leading the Charge for Food Safety as Part of a Healthy Diet

Leading the Charge for Food Safety as Part of a Healthy Diet

June 20, 2013

Published by Business Today, June 2013

Blueberries and brain health, chia seeds and their nutritional impact, broccoli and preventing eye disease — these are examples of some of the most recent findings from the NC Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis.

The catch is that people can only enjoy the health benefits of fruits and vegetables if they are safe to eat. At the NCRC, Leonard Williams, PhD, director of the NC A&T State University Center for Excellence in Post Harvest Technologies (CEPHT) is one of the scientists leading the food safety charge.

Leonard Williams, PhD, NC A&T Center for Excellence in Post Harvest Technologies, checks Staphylococcus aureus samples from fresh produce for antibiotic resistance as part of a project to identify and ultimately prevent the pathogen’s presence on fresh foods.

Williams works with industry, academia and government to accelerate the discovery of new methods to reduce pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli 0157:H7. The research has an economic impact from the field to the refrigerator to the workplace.

“Pathogens cause a lot of deaths, sickness and hospitalization which result in a tremendous economic burden with loss of work and doctor visits and on the food industry with recalls and lawsuits,” Williams said. “It exponentially compounds itself to where foodborne illness is probably one of the most costly to treat.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 31 pathogens and other “unspecified agents” cause over 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually. A 2012 article in The Journal of Food Protection reported that foodborne illness creates a $77.7 billion economic burden annually in the United States alone.

Williams’ aim is to help remedy the situation by offering new methods to isolate, detect and prevent foodborne pathogens. He’s proven that bitter melon and sorrel extracts have antimicrobial properties that reduce the effects of foodborne pathogens. He is testing the extracts to determine if they have anti-viral effects.

He is a co-lead of a US Department of Agriculture, multi-institutional, $25 million, five-year grant with the goal of reducing the prevalence of norovirus.  CDC statistics show that norovirus causes over 5.4 million flu-like illnesses a year. Through the grant, Williams is developing a biomaterial using “phytochemicals and nanoparticles to inactivate pathogens” on produce and hard surfaces such as countertops.

Williams is also one of the first to track Staphylococcus aureus in vegetables like lettuce, green onions, sprouts and spinach. “We’ve actually shown that similar strains of Staph can be found in produce in Central and South America and can also show up in the United States,” he said.

Because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization now requires more safety plans and product testing, Williams expects that the NCRC’s positive impact on food safety and, in turn, the economy  will increase as more companies and organizations take advantage of the campus’  array of scientific resources.

Learn more about CEPHT.

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