Genome Alberta

Livestock Blog

A companion site to Genome Alberta's
Bovine Genome Sequencing Project
October 15, 2012 1:30 PM

Globalization of Food Supply Creates Urgency for Genomics to Isolate Foodborne Diseases

Filed Under: Pam Baker

Alberta beef producers had barely recovered from the devastating “mad cow” debacle of a few years ago when the XL Foods’ massive E. coli outbreak hit last month. Fears are rampant that it will take years for beef producers to recover from this setback too, especially in light of the ever broadening beef product recalls and the plant’s lengthy shutdown. Not only are importing countries likely to avoid or bar Canadian beef again, but Canadian locals are shunning Alberta beef too, favoring local beef instead. 

 But in truth, globalization has made the notion of “local” foods little more than a quaint and distant notion. Even food raised, picked, slaughtered, and produced locally are likely to be handled by an international workforce, many of whom are temporary foreign workers (TFWs) from the poorest countries around the globe. This pattern exists worldwide and should not be used to disparage or harm any of these workers who are only looking to feed their families too.

Instead, people must understand that cutting production costs to the bone only leads to rot and disease in the meat of the food chain.

If food producers are going to continue to consolidate into a handful of behemoth plants with high-pressure production quotas and a workforce that neither possesses a common language nor uniform training, then disease outbreak will be a continuing result. And this is true in every country in the world.

Couple all that with the dove-tailing of the world’s food supply so that no country is entirely sure of -- or is inordinately delayed in finding -- where any given food originated or was processed, and the threat to human safety grows exponentially.

So what is to be done to shore up food safety globally in an ever frenzied globalized supply chain? Genomics looks to be the most promising answer but that effort too requires a global collaborative effort.

The 100K Pathogen Genome Project is just such a consortium. Founded by UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and Agilent Technologies and steered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the ambitious project is the largest of its kind and is expected to be completed within the next five years. When completed, identifying the precise source of an outbreak of foodborne disease will be far faster and infinitely more efficient both in terms of prevention and cure. 

The need for this project is certainly underscored by the Alberta outbreak but it was actually first highlighted by the E. coli 0104 outbreaks in Europe wherein a chimeric genome (consisting of two types of organisms in a single entity) created more human harm than either of the two types would have created alone.

Effectively dealing with such organisms means rapidly discovering their existence in the first place and accurately and quickly tracking the source through multiple ingredients in packaged foods from a variety of producers and back even to originating farms.

There are other groups hard at work to the same end.  A Winnipeg lab is using advanced surveillance systems and genomics to attempt to track outbreaks in real time. The National Microbiology Lab (NML), part of the Public Health Agency of Canada, believes that DNA fingerprinting of pathogens is essential to solving food supply threats in the shortest possible timeframe.  

“We report on a real-time or as close to real-time basis as we possibly can,” said Dr. Matthew Gilmour of the National Microbiology Laboratory, Winnipeg in a National Research Council Canada article. “If there is a contaminated food product on the shelf, responding in six months is pointless.”

And that is, of course, the bottom line. Genomics are our best shot at finding foodborne illnesses before people get sick and even die. But there is another benefit too.  If such efforts succeed, then beef producers can also recover far faster too. 

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