Welcome to the Foodborne Contaminants Research (FCR) Unit at the Western Regional Research Center (WRRC) of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Although there are many types of foodborne contaminants, our Unit studies human food poisoning diseases and the pathogens and toxins that can cause them.
Diseases associated with foodborne contaminants
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans suffer from about 48 million cases of food poisoning each year, causing over 128,000 hospitalizations, and over 3,000 deaths. The USDA estimates this costs the US economy around $6 billion per year. The CDC tracks outbreaks of related foodborne illnesses more closely than individual illnesses. Only one out of five of these 48M cases are caused by known pathogens, and much of this data gap is due to a lack of good detection methods. You can read more statistical details in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Food poisoning is often caused by bacteria such as E. coli and Clostridium botulinum. Our work focuses on development of new methods for detection of these pathogens and their toxins in foods, like meat and eggs. In addition to bacterial pathogens, we also study the infective prions that cause Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs), such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, aka "mad cow disease"). As with some bacterial diseases, TSEs affect livestock but can be transferred to humans via foods. In addition to strengthening food surveillance systems to detect natural or inadvertent contamination by bacteria and prions, our research also addresses the need to defend the US food supply from intentional adulteration of food with bacterial and plant toxins.
Our two major areas of research are:
Biothreat toxin detection
BSE ("mad cow disease") and other TSE diseases
An excellent source for more general information on food safety research conducted by the USDA can be found at the USDA's Food Safety Research Information Office web page.