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A bag of groceries.

Keeping our food safe

U's new National Center for Food Protection and Defense learns to foil attacks

By Deane Morrison

From M, fall 2004

It's 1 a.m., and you've got the munchies. Do you know where those potato chips have been? The chips are almost certainly safe to eat, but how can you be sure? At some point between the potato field and your shopping cart, there was probably the opportunity to tamper with them. And if somebody had contaminated them deliberately, it could be hard to reach all the other people, like you, who bought a tainted bag. Reducing the risk of such a scenario is the goal of the new National Center for Food Protection and Defense, headquartered at the University of Minnesota. The center was created with a three-year, $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Besides the U, it includes three partners--the University of Wisconsin-Madison, North Dakota State University, and Michigan State University--plus investigators from 12 other universities, industry, and the private sector. On July 6, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman came to the Twin Cities campus to formally launch the center, which is taking a holistic approach to foiling attacks.

The food supply is extraordinarily safe already. The need is for a means of dealing with willful contamination.

"We think the food supply is extraordinarily safe already," says center director Frank Busta, a retired U professor of food science and nutrition. The need, he explains, is for a means of dealing with willful contamination of food, which has been a rare occurrence. "We need to learn about agents that would be intentionally introduced, and we have to assume that a lot of the knowledge is out there, not unlike the instructions for making bombs," he says. "We must make it difficult for terrorists to introduce contaminants into the food system." In one project supported by the center, U microbiology professor Vivek Kapur is developing a portable device to detect specific bacteria, viruses, or parasites in food samples. It could be used by firefighters or other first responders to quickly identify the cause of an illness or death and begin appropriate countermeasures. In another project, a group at The University of Wisconsin-Madison is creating a biological detector for botulism toxin that could run continuously. Such a device could be used in a cannery, where a stream of fluid such as grape juice would flow past an electronic biosensor and be screened for contaminants. The center will draw on work at companies like Food Security Systems, LLC, which is producing software to model the geographic spread of a contaminated food product. With exact information on when and where people sicken or die from tainted food, public health officials could match the pattern of illness to the distribution path of a particular food. Researchers are also crafting the best ways to respond to a national food contamination crisis, including tracing people who are affected, warning potential victims, communicating the risk to the public swiftly without sparking a panic, and decontaminating the food after the incident. "A number of our findings will have broad applications in food safety and medical detection," says Busta. "We hope our discoveries will help with unintentional contamination, too."

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