Sep 262005
Authors: Amy Robinson

An unseen killer lurks in the environment waiting to contaminate its victim's food. Yet, this killer is no match for Professor John Sofos and his team of researchers. Sofos has received a $2 million grant to study Listeria.

His work to earn the grant officially began in December when he and collaborators submitted a proposal regarding the control of Listeria, a deadly food-borne illness, in meat poultry to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Integrated Food Safety Initiative.

Listeriosis is caused by a pathogenic (disease-causing) bacterium. It is widely spread in the environment within the soil, water, sewage and natural vegetation.

It contaminates raw food or food that has failed to be cooked properly, Sofos said. Cooked food can also be cross-contaminated if kept under unsanitary conditions.

Listeria is most commonly found in smoked seafood, deli lunchmeats and salads.

"It kills 20 to 30 percent of the people who are infected," he said.

Listeria is especially dangerous for people who are more sensitive to the pathogen, including pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.

It can result in the abortion of a fetus, stillbirth and other irregularities, Sofos said.

In order to prevent illness, pregnant women should avoid foods commonly infected with Listeria and make sure foods are cooked properly, he added.

The research objectives of the grant include, "developing procedures to reduce Listeria as much as possible in products and developing education for those at high risk as well as those who process and handle foods, to make sure they do it properly," Sofos said.

One of Sofos' collaborators is John Scanga , associate professor and extension meat specialist. Scanga's role in the research is to think of methods to inform food retailers, cooks and other people who serve products to the public how to do it correctly.

The team will continue to conduct research with the aid of this grant until 2009.

"We are in the very early phases of this grant," Scanga said.

Providing workshops at yearly conventions held by the American Meat Institute Foundation and other trade associations is one way to provide information to people handling food.

Pat Kendall , professor and associate extension specialist, is also working with Sofos and Scanga. Kendall is involved in the outreach and education component of the grant.

She said her primary responsibility is to focus on outreach programs geared toward people who are at a higher risk for Listeriosis, especially women of childbearing age and the elderly with compromised immune systems.

"We will make the materials developed available to the public through our SafeFood Web page (," Kendall wrote in an e-mail interview. "We will also offer food safety education for child birth classes, senior centers and other interested groups."

Sofos echoed Kendall's statements about the importance of informing the public about the dangers of Listeria.

"People should use good sanitation and hygiene. They should treat foods carefully and refrigerate it when needed," Sofos said. "We can't eliminate Listeria since it is a contaminate in the environment, so we must take care of our food."

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