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Five Questions About FDA’s Food Safety Challenge

Can you describe why Salmonella represents such a serious problem in food safety? How does it differ from other pathogens?

While the American food supply is among the safest in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six Americans is sickened by foodborne illness annually, resulting in about 3,000 deaths each year. It is estimated that the overall negative economic impact of foodborne illness in the United States, including medical costs, quality-of-life losses, lost productivity and lost-life expectancy, may be as high as $77 billion per year. Salmonella represents the leading cause of deaths and of hospitalizations related to foodborne illness. Contaminated produce is responsible for nearly half of foodborne illnesses and almost a quarter of foodborne-related deaths.

How would faster detection of Salmonella help FDA fulfill its mission to assure the safety of America’s food supply?

Outbreak investigations involving foodborne illness are a time-sensitive endeavor, particularly for those commodities having a limited/short shelf life such as fresh produce, and are dependent on the gathering of epidemiological evidence to link clinical findings to a putative food source. Detection methods in foods for microbial pathogens in general and Salmonella specifically have largely relied on time-consuming enrichment steps. The results of food matrix analysis are vital to limiting the scope of the outbreak, removing a suspected commodity from the marketplace, and identifying the point source of contamination. Consequently, analytical timeliness is of paramount importance.

What scientific advances do you find particularly exciting as they relate to improving food safety and foodborne pathogen detection?

There are three innovations on the horizon that I believe will have a large impact on protecting the public health.
Hand-held detector technologies are becoming a reality and have the potential to rapidly and reliably perform on-site analyses for the presence of foodborne adulterants. Though there currently are no such field-ready devices to detect microbial foodborne pathogens with the necessary sensitivity, these portable units, when fully developed, are envisioned to perform their analyses outside the laboratory setting, require little or no sample preparation, and provide results in real time.

Why did FDA decide to utilize an open innovation competition to help solve this problem?

FDA realizes that there is great benefit in collaboration and in maximizing resources, manpower, and — most of all — ideas. By reaching out to the general public, academia, and the larger scientific, innovation, and solver communities through this challenge, we are provided with the opportunity to view solutions to our food safety problems through a different lens. It’s a means to consider approaches (and possible solutions) through others’ eyes with technology that we may not have considered applicable. Some of the greatest innovations are born from “outside-the-box” thinking and this is what we hope to achieve. The prize purse doesn’t hurt as an added incentive either.

How do you see open innovation efforts, like the 2014 FDA Food Safety Challenge, impacting how FDA protects America’s food supply?

FDA and our food industry stakeholders share common goals and responsibilities of providing a safe product to our citizens and ensuring the public health. We also share many of the same scientific knowledge gaps needed to fulfill these responsibilities. Specifically, foods are a diverse and heterogeneous matrix and present many challenges analytically to ensuring they are devoid of either chemical or biological adulterants. This first FDA Food Safety Challenge is a means for the agency to achieve a common goal using a new collaborative approach.

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