Oct 142008
Authors: Jim Sojourner

In the wake of a food-borne bacteria outbreak in Canada that has killed at least 17 people and sickened more than 60 others, CSU researchers are working to prevent the spread of the deadly bacteria, listeria.

The university’s Center for Meat Safety and Quality and the Food Safety Cluster will collaborate with Cornell University, the University of Nebraska, Ohio State University and Kansas State University to better understand outbreaks like the one Canada has experienced this year.

CSU was recently granted a $3.4 million award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand food safety research, which comes at a time particularly pertinent in light of the need to prevent listeria’s spread.

Listeria monocytogenes (known commonly as listeria) is food-borne bacteria that can result in illness and is found naturally in soil, water and vegetation. It can also grow at refrigerated temperatures in processing plants and even in homes.

Sen. Ken Salazar, who congratulated CSU on receiving the award.

“Any effort to prevent [listeria] from getting into our food is something that Senator Salazar supports,” said Michael Amodeo, spokesperson for the Democrat.

Salazar is “basically a strong supporter,” said Amodeo, of agriculture in northern Colorado and wants to ensure that the food put on peoples’ tables is safe.

John Sofos, the project director, CSU professor and director of the Center for Meat Safety and Quality, said his team hopes to use a combination of lab research and field research to discover more about the bacteria.

Sofos said the project, which is funded by the National Integrated Food Safety Initiative of the Cooperative State Research and Education and Extension Service of the DOA, aims to determine “what can be done to kill or not allow listeria to grow.”

There are roughly 2,500 serious cases of listeriosis, causing about 500 deaths, in the U.S. each year, according to the Web site. Sofos said 20 to 30 percent of people who contract the bacteria die.

While heat kills the pathogen, Sofos said it is often transmitted through pre-cooked, refrigerated foods such as deli meats, raw-milk cheeses and cold smoked seafood.

According the Center for Disease Control Web site, symptoms include a high fever and nausea, and if the infection spreads to the nervous system, it can result in a stiff neck, severe headache, convulsions or similar symptoms.

“A normal healthy person is not susceptible,” Sofos said.

However, pregnant women, the elderly or those will a pre-existing illness can become infected, and the complications can be severe.

Pregnant women, who are 20 times more likely to get listeriosis than a non-pregnant woman, may experience only mild, flu-like symptoms while their fetus experiences the brunt of the infection, the CDC Web site also said. Stillbirth, miscarriage or seriously infected newborns are possible complications.

In addition to the research Sofos is doing, the project also aims to educate food producers and consumers.

“We’re making very good progress. We’re talking to the consumers and industry,” Sofos said.

So far, he said, the program has held 12 industry workshops and 10 consumer workshops, educating both groups about the risks of the infection and methods to prevent or avoid it.

Sofos said his project also produces bulletins that provide guidelines for microwaving and boiling food.

“People shouldn’t panic. They should just use some good sense and be aware of the risk.” Sofos said. “We’re available to help anyone who has questions.”

Senior Reporter Jim Sojourner can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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