FDA launches food safety challenge

FDA: We have a lot of answers, but not all of them

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

FDA wants tech ideas to fight foodborne illness. Picture: FDA/Flickr
FDA wants tech ideas to fight foodborne illness. Picture: FDA/Flickr

Related tags: Foodborne illness, Food safety, Bacteria, Salmonella, Fda

The US Food and Drug Administration is asking for potential breakthrough ideas on Salmonella in fresh produce with a total prize pool of $500,000.

Concepts must specifically address detection of Salmonella in minimally processed fresh produce, but ideas to address testing for other microbial pathogens and in other foods are encouraged.

An estimated one in six Americans is sickened by foodborne illness annually, resulting in about 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Salmonella is the leading cause of deaths and of hospitalizations related to foodborne illness, estimated to cause 380 deaths and 19,000 hospitalizations in the US each year.

A panel of food safety and pathogen detection experts from the FDA, CDC and the US Department of Agriculture will judge submissions, determine finalists, and select a winner or winners.

Finalists’ prize

Up to five submitters will advance as finalists. Finalists will be awarded $20,000 and will be coached by FDA subject matter experts who will help them mature their ideas before they present their refined concepts to the judges.

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for the federal government to collaborate with outside experts to bring forth breakthrough ideas and technologies that can help ensure quicker detection of problems in our food supply and help prevent foodborne illnesses.”

Those interested should submit concepts to the FDA by November 9 by following this link where you can also view rules.

The 2014 Food Safety Challenge was developed under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (2010), which grants federal agencies authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their core missions.

Major public health impact

Posting on the FDA blog, David White, chief science officer and research director in FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine, said the main causes of Salmonella illness are poultry and eggs.

“FDA’s goal is to prevent Salmonella contamination from happening, but we need to detect it quickly and efficiently when it is present in order to remove foods from the marketplace,” ​he said.

White said it was focusing on produce first because it has a major impact on public health.

“According to the CDC, contaminated produce causes 46% of foodborne illness and 23% of foodborne illness-related deaths,” ​he said.

“But detecting low levels of Salmonella in produce can be like finding a needle in a haystack: difficult, expensive and time-consuming.

“Even a simple tomato might have up to a billion surface bacteria that do not cause harm to humans. Quickly detecting just the few types of bacteria that do cause harm, like Salmonella, is a daunting task.”

White said accuracy was the highest priority but rapid detection was also important

“Testing for microbial contamination of produce currently can take up to several days. Meanwhile, the produce may sit in a warehouse, where its shelf life decreases with each passing day,” ​he said.

“Consumers can’t eat it, and producers can’t sell it. Those limitations affect the economy – from consumers to producers to farmers.”

Maybe other scientists outside FDA have revolutionary techniques that they never thought of applying to food safety, he said.

“There are many new technologies that might be invaluable to our field laboratories, where we’re testing at least hundreds of pounds of produce a week,” ​added White.

“Our hope is that this challenge will provide solutions that would increase the speed of FDA’s detection efforts without sacrificing specificity and sensitivity or comparability to reference methods.” 

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