Food Safety and Pathogen Detection

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Food safety is a national priority that affects every man, woman and child. As many as 48 million Americans become ill annually due to foodborne pathogens and toxins. The Center for Disease Control's estimates indicate that as many as 3,000 of these individuals will die, with an additional 128,000 being hospitalized as a result of this exposure.

Foodborne illness poses a $77.7 billion economic burden in the United States annually, according to a new study published in the Journal of Food Protection. The basic cost-of-illness model includes economic estimates for medical costs, productivity losses, and illness-related death. The study does not include costs to the food industry, including reduced consumer confidence, recall losses or litigation. For example, the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box hamburger incident involving beef contaminated by E.coli 0157:H7 infected more than 600 individuals (mostly children), killed four children and resulted in lawsuit settlements of $126 million.

Salmonella Photographed Using SEMFor a closer look at our research efforts for 2010, see our 2010 report.

The Culprits

While some foodborne illnesses have dropped significantly, infections caused by one of the most common germs—Salmonella—have not declined. CDC estimates the cost of foodborne illness caused by Salmonella alone to be up to $365 million in direct medical costs annually. The USDA Economic Research Service figures the total cost of Salmonella cases to be $2.7 billion (2010 dollars), including all Salmonella sources. The USDA/ERS are continually adding and updating data on the medical costs of other bacterial illnesses on the USDA/ERS Foodborne Illness Calculator.

CDC's research has found the top five pathogens contributing to domestically acquired foodborne illnesses resulting in death are as follows:

Pathogen Estimated No. Deaths
Salmonella, nontyphoidal
Toxoplasma gondii
Listeria monocytogenes
Campylobacter spp.

Our Solution

To address the needs of our state and nation, Auburn University commissioned the Auburn University Detection and Food Safety Center in October 1999, and designated it as a University Peak of Excellence. With this identification came funding from the State of Alabama to initiate a systems engineering approach to identifying and performing the research needed to improve food safety.

At the core of the Auburn University Detection and Food Safety Center are researchers from five Auburn University colleges: Agriculture, Engineering, Human Sciences, Sciences and Mathematics, and Veterinary Medicine. Our core researchers, along with the help of colleagues, staff and students from these and other disciplines, work together to address the need for next-generation sensors and information systems for the detection of food contamination, and rapid inventory and traceability of food products.

To accomplish this, AUDFS is combining advances in the identification of foodborne illnesses and contaminants with the latest in biosensor technology. These efforts will ultimately lead to a system that monitors food products from production to consumption, thereby eliminating or reducing significantly the threat of foodborne bacteria, pathogens and toxins (i.e. Salmonella, E. coli, "mad-cow disease," et cetera) reaching our dinner tables and restaurants.

Our Vision

To improve the safety of the U.S. food system by developing the science and engineering required to rapidly identify, pinpoint and characterize problems that arise in the food supply chain through the integration of sensor and information systems technology.

Center research is funded through several funding streams, including special university funding through the Peaks of Excellence program, federal agencies (including USDA, FDA and NSF), and food-related industries in the form of sponsored projects and industrial participation.

Last Updated: Aug 22, 2018