A&T to develop norovirus controls

Dr. Leonard Williams

Dr. Leonard Williams, lead scientist for food safety and director of the Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies, examines a Petri dish  that contains food-borne pathogens found on fresh produce.

Food safety scientists know a lot about foodborne bacteria such as Salmonella, E.coli, Listeria and Campylobacter. Noroviruses, on the other hand, are entirely different microorganisms and have evaded their best efforts to isolate, grow and study in the laboratory -- which makes prevention and control difficult. Now answers are on the horizon, thanks to a $25 million multi-institution project from the USDA to investigate this leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States.

N.C. A&T’s Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies (CEPHT) has been named a key partner in the wide-reaching, five-year project to be led by N.C. State, in partnership with A&T and 28 other institutions across the country from academia, industry and government.

“Norovirus is a huge issue, and requires a large, multi-disciplinary team such as this to develop solutions,” says Dr. Leonard Williams. As lead scientist for food safety and microbiology and interim director at CEPHT, Williams is in charge of A&T’s norovirus team, and will be responsible for developing prevention and control strategies.

Though it is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States affecting approximately 5 million people a year - norovirus is not as dangerous as some other foodborne pathogens that make headlines.  Symptoms are relatively mild, with otherwise healthy victims usually shaking off an upset stomach or diarrhea in a day or two. Nevertheless, better controls are needed because norovirus is difficult to eradicate, highly contagious, and spreads quickly through hospitals, nursing homes, cruise ships, and other public settings where food is served.

As the developer of control strategies, the CEPHT’s part of the norovirus project will be to apply its expertise in microbiology to developing a new technology to deactivate norovirus, or products from natural or plant-based materials for food, hand and surface decontamination. In his role as CEPHT’s lead scientist for food engineering, Dr. Guibing Chen could then apply his expertise in “microencapsulation,” a technology which uses minute capsules for timed release or to stabilize active ingredients for long shelf life. Other units at CEPHT could potentially play a role as the project unfolds. Scientists will also develop nanotechnology-based post-harvest processes to reduce or eliminate norovirus contamination on fruits and vegetables. Finally, they will validate the study’s findings in real-world settings, such as food processing plants.

“Validating the efficacy of feasibility in food processing settings will be an important step to developing control strategies,” Williams says.
For additional information, please email Williams at llw@ncat.edu



Center delivers a lesson in food safety to Congressman

Congressman Mel Watt got a hands-on lesson in food safety research at the Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies in Kannapolis recently.  

Shurrita Davis, a lab technician, took the 12th District House representative through the paces of plating, incubating and then reading a sample of listeria bacteria exposed to antibiotics on a Petri dish. The work might have been new to Watt, but it was all in a routine day’s work at the Center’s food safety laboratory, where scientists are studying antibiotic-resistant strains of foodborne bacteria.

Mel Watt visits CEPHT

“Unfortunately, we find these strains all too frequently,” said Dr. Leonard Williams, lead scientist for food safety at the Center, which is housed at the North Carolina Research Campus. “But the good news is that the USDA system that we are part of has the tools and technology to track the trend, stay on top of the issue, and recommend research-based management practices to food industry and the farming community. That’s why we are here.”

Watt visited the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University administered Center as part of his annual week-long “Trading Places” tour, in which he stops at work places and puts himself in the shoes of workers. As he completed the task, he observed a broader “moral to the story.”  Minimize antibiotics at the source, he said, pointing to a picture of a beef cow that was included his lab instructions, and or, develop new generation antibiotics for the health care industry.  “I learned something here, on a lot of different sides,” he said.

With its strengths in post-harvest food issues and not medical research, the Center’s focus is on the first “moral”. One way scientists at the Center are doing so is in exploring a variety of alternatives to antibiotics that will enable meat and poultry to remain affordable for consumers and profitable for industry, without resorting to antibiotics in livestock pens. For example, researchers are exploring compounds isolated from the herb sorrel as one possible alternative. Still another food safety issue that the Center is equipped to handle is monitoring for bioterrorism threats in the food supply, Center Director Mohamed Ahmedna told Watt.

“This is a great addition to our geographic area, and we are supportive of what you all do in research, as well as in developing young minds, “ Watt told Ahmedna and lab staff, as he prepared to take his leave.

Now fully staffed and equipped, the Center’s research program is quickly coming up to speed, Ahmedna said. Seminars and workshops for the farming and food industry communities are being developed, as well as educational opportunities for students in the Food Sciences Program and other life sciences at North Carolina A&T.

The Center was established by the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at A&T in 2008 to drive education and economic development in food biotechnology.  Its primary purpose is to assist North Carolina agricultural industries in developing new food processes and products that improve safety, quality, nutrition and consumer acceptability.

In addition to food safety, the equipment and expertise available at the Center covers all aspects of post-harvest food research, including food processing, packaging and engineering, consumer research, functional foods and nutriceuticals, and value added products.

Information box: The pathogen listeria, which causes approximately 500 deaths each year, can be harbored in soil or water, and occasionally finds its way into foods. In recent years, ready-to-eat meats have become one of the more frequent foods implicated in cases of listeriosis, which is why food safety experts now recommend that it is best to heat deli meats and hot dogs before consuming, particularly for pregnant women, children, the elderly and immune suppressed patients.