March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Three MSU professors receive federal grants totaling just under $3 million

Wednesday, Dec. 7 — Three Michigan State professors landed almost $3 million in federal grants to pursue research projects to help eliminate food-borne illnesses.
Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary for the United States Department of Agriculture, announced the grants to a packed room in MSU’s Anthony Hall this afternoon. The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded 17 grants — totaling just over $10 million  — to universities in 13 states. Each proposal was reviewed and selected by a scientific peer-review panel.
MSU was the only university awarded more than one grant.
“The three projects we’re awarding to Michigan State exemplify the type of integration of research, education and extension that I believe is crucial for USDA’s science program,” Merrigan said. “We know that they’ve gone through rigorous scrutiny and that they are truly the best of the best.”
Three MSU professors landed grants to pursue research to lower contamination and food-borne illnesses in the food industry, Merrigan said.
Brad Marks, a biosystems engineering Professor, received nearly $543,000 to study salmonella outbreaks in dry foods, such as peanuts. Marks said his research would provide the food industry with data, knowledge and tools that would allow it to become more effective at preventing outbreaks.
Les Bourquin, a food science and human nutrition Professor, received $543,000 to develop food safety education and training programs to improve industry standards. His research will reduce food-handling errors by food industry employees to lower the amount and severity of outbreaks.
Both Marks and Bourquin will complete their research in three years, Bourquin said.
Elliot Ryser, a food science and human nutrition Professor, received over $1.8 million to explore ways to reduce the contamination of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables through the processing and distribution process.
“Fresh-cut fruits and vegetables are now the leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States,” Ryser said. “If you have contamination on a knife blade, for example, and you cut a cantaloupe, you’re going to contaminate the cut surface of that cantaloupe and the pathogens can potentially grow.”
While washing a product can remove 90 to 99 percent of potentially harmful bacteria, it only takes a few cells of infectious bacteria, such as salmonella, to cause an illness, Ryser said.
His research will last four years and attempt to predict how contamination spreads and counter potential contamination scenarios.
Merrigan said the research is important not only for the university conducting it, but for the food industry as a whole. If an outbreak happens, it doesn’t matter which farm the product comes from, she said. Public panic can have a devastating effect on the industry by driving people away from everyone’s products.
“We think that (the grant projects) will go a long way to ensuring the nation’s food is safe, which is our top priority,” she said.
Merrigan said MSU’s strong commitment to agricultural research and its collaborations with other universities and departments continue to make it a strong competitor for grant money.
“You’re right in the spotlight and you’re doing everything that we need,” she said of the grant awardees.