Kansas is playing a vital role in protecting our food

07/02/2013 12:00 AM

07/02/2013 7:19 PM

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 48 million Americans, about 1 in 6, suffer from food-borne disease every year, and 3,000 die. Our food faces contamination risk from the time livestock are born and crops are planted in the field to the time it hits the dinner plate.

So who’s protecting America’s food?

It’s not simple. Food safety begins in America’s farm fields, but includes many steps from transportation to preparation. Plus, a newer concept, bio-terrorism, further complicates the challenge.

Fortunately, one constant in our food system is the positive impact of science. U.S. researchers, some here in Kansas, are looking at food safety from every possible angle.

At the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University, we are doing just that. The institute is a Biosecurity Level 3 laboratory located adjacent to the site for the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kansas.

It has the capability to conduct some of the research that will be done in the future at the federal facility and already is capable of jump-starting projects to help our country plan for and avoid food disasters.

For example, researchers are:

• Developing vaccines to improve the health of livestock.

• Improving technology to better detect pathogens in soil and crops.

• Validating food safety protocols.

• Mapping the ecology of food-borne pathogens.

• Identifying host resistance genes in organisms.

Our scientists helped establish steps to keep meals safe for U.S. soldiers overseas and developed resistance to wheat blast fungus in Kansas and U.S. wheat.

The institute does research to save the lives of animals and humans. We’ve studied the pandemic H1N1 virus to protect humans from this flu-like disease and various swine diseases that have saved pigs’ lives as well as millions of dollars for the industry.

In collaboration with USDA scientists, K-State researchers have active projects in disaster cleanup and safeguards against

E. coli O157:H7

, Rift Valley fever, West Nile Virus, the Schmallenberg and bluetongue viruses in sheep, and more.

In March, Battelle, a global research and development company, published findings that agricultural bioscience is driving economic growth and job creation in the U.S.

It reports: “Agbioscience holds the key to a bright future for the U.S. and the North Central region in what has been termed the BioCentury. It is a base of economic power for the region and the nation, but moreover it holds great promise as a central driver of a successful economic and societal future.”

A July 2012 study published in the

Journal of Food Protection

reports that the cost of illness caused by the 14 most prevalent food-borne pathogens in this country is $14 billion a year, which includes the medical expenses of more than 128,000 who are hospitalized annually — and this does not include litigation or recall costs to companies involved.

Bottom line: You want to be able to trust that the food you eat is safe.

I can confidently say our country’s research community is fully committed and fully capable in its role as protectors of our food and I’m proud to say much of that work is being done here in Kansas.

Stephen Higgs is the research director of the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.  

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