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Food safety: N.C. State gets $25M federal grant to lead norovirus research

North Carolina State University has received a $25 million federal grant to research noroviruses and food safety across the food supply chain. The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant will be used to design effective control measures and reduce the number of food-borne illnesses caused by viruses. NCSU is the lead institution in the research project, […]

North Carolina State University has received a $25 million federal grant to research noroviruses and food safety across the food supply chain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant will be used to design effective control measures and reduce the number of food-borne illnesses caused by viruses. NCSU is the lead institution in the research project, which pulls together more than 30 scientists and other collaborators from academia, industry and government. LeeAnn Jaykus, a professor in NCSU’s department of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences, is the lead investigator of the five-year project.

Human noroviruses are the most common cause of food-borne disease, responsible for an estimated 5 million-plus cases in the United States each year. Noroviruses can spread from person to person through contaminated food or water and by touching contaminated surfaces. At greatest risk for contamination are foods that are extensively handled just prior to consumption — shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels, as well as fresh produce.

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Many people, including public health professionals, professionals in the food industry and consumers, believe that bacteria rather than viruses are the most common cause of food-borne disease. That’s largely because human noroviruses are hard to study, Jaykus said in a prepared statement. These viruses can’t be cultivated outside of the human body. There are few commercial diagnostic tests available in the United States and only a few scientists are trained specifically in food virology.

“We anticipate this project will result in enhanced understanding, surveillance and control of food-borne human noroviruses, with the ultimate goal of reducing the burden of food-borne disease caused by viruses,” Jaykus said.

The project has six goals:

  • Develop improved methods of studying human noroviruses and their role in food-borne illnesses.
  • Develop and validate rapid and practical methods to detect human noroviruses.
  • Collect and analyze data on viral food-borne illnesses — including how they are transmitted — and provide risk and cost analyses.
  • Improve understanding of how human noroviruses behave in the food-safety chain in order to develop scientifically justifiable control measures.
  • Develop online courses and curricula for food safety and health professionals and food service workers, and provide information to fresh produce and shellfish producers and processors on the risks, management and control of food-borne viruses.
  • Develop a public literature database, build virus research capabilities in state public health laboratories and develop graduate-level curricula to educate masters and doctoral students trained in food virology.
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The core scientific team includes representatives from Clemson University, Baylor College of Medicine, Emory University, RTI International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Georgia, N.C. A&T State University, N.C. Central University and the Institute for Food Safety and Health at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Also contributing are the University of Delaware, Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, the U.S. FDA and USDA Agricultural Research Service, Arizona State University, New Mexico State University, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Rutgers University. Representatives from industry and government will have an advisory role.