Researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH) and College of Veterinary Medicine are working together with industry to determine how high Salmonella levels in ground turkey and ground beef have to be before they pose a threat to human health.
“Ultimately we are trying to better understand how to predict and prevent outbreaks,” says Craig Hedberg, SPH professor and one of the researchers working on the study, Developing a Risk Management Framework to Improve Public Health Outcomes by Enumerating Salmonella in Ground Meat and Poultry Products.
The study is one of 17 research projects in the area of Global Food Ventures, which received $3 million in funding from MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery Research and InnoVation Economy), an $18-million annual investment by the state. MnDRIVE’s four research areas are Global Food Ventures; Advancing Industry, Conserving Our Environment; Discoveries and Treatments for Brain Conditions; and Robotics, Sensors and Advanced Manufacturing. Projects in Global Food Ventures will bring research, agriculture, and industry together to develop holistic approaches to ensure a safe and sustainable food system.
“It would be easy to say we should have no Salmonella in [meat] products, but that carries risks, too,” says Hedberg. “Meat with contamination levels too low to cause illness in people would be destroyed, and [that could lead] the industry to stop or reduce its current level of testing, which would halt the monitoring process and increase the risk of illness.”
To find a workable solution to the issue, the research team will use data from Cargill and other industry partners as well as data on past outbreaks to compare Salmonella concentrations under normal production conditions in ground meat products with levels that have been linked to the occurrence of foodborne illness outbreaks. Headquartered in Wayzata, Minn., Cargill operates both ground turkey and ground beef plants and monitors for Salmonella.
The team is focusing on ground meat because grinding mixes contamination throughout the product, and live bacteria can remain inside an undercooked hamburger or turkey burger.
“We will look at all the data on outbreaks in the United States to determine where in the process contamination occurs,” says MnDRIVE Scholar and SPH assistant professor Matteo Convertino, an expert in building complex systems models whom SPH hired to work on projects in Global Food Ventures. “Does contamination occur in the farm environment? During industrial processes? And how can the risk of spread of contamination be minimized?”
The project’s other investigators are Jeff Bender, professor of Veterinary Public Health and epidemiologist for the Veterinary Medical Center; Scott Wells, division head of Veterinary Public Health and director of education at the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS); and Fernando Sampedro, assistant professor at CAHFS.
“The School of Public Health is well positioned to conduct this type of research,” says Hedberg. “We have very strong partnerships with the public health community, food production entities in the state, and the College of Veterinary Medicine, working under the One Health model that looks at human and animal health together.”
SPH also has a strong theoretical basis for developing models and is on the front line of investigating outbreaks of food borne illness, applying what it knows to real-world situations.
Real-World Research for Students
Graduate Research Fellow Amruta Marwah, a second-year PhD student in the School of Public (SPH), has been working with her advisor, SPH professor Craig Hedberg, on a study that will try to determine how often Salmonella illness in people may be linked to infection in food animals.
Their findings will be used as a base for the MnDRIVE study, Developing a Risk Management Framework to Improve Public Health Outcomes by Enumerating Salmonella n Ground Meat and Poultry Products.
“Because MnDRIVE supports both my studies and my research, I can focus on my research,” says Marwah. “It is nice to know that people will actually use this research to make policy decisions.” —F.H.
By Fran Howard