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Food Safety Center of Excellence
General Information
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Mission Statement:

The Food Safety Center of Excellence was established by the University of Tennessee in December 2000, as part of the university's 21st Century Research Initiative. The center will develop and evaluate strategies to destroy or control food-borne pathogens and reduce the occurrence of food-borne illnesses. Contributing to this work is a multi-disciplinary team of researchers, consisting of members of UT's Institute of Agriculture's Department of Food Science and Technology as well as researchers from departments outside the department. Specialists include scientists with expertise in biochemistry, reproductive biology, food service management, parasitology, infectious diseases and risk assessment.

The team's efforts will be coordinated by the Center's two co-directors: Dr. Ann Draughon, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, and Dr. Stephen Oliver, professor in the Department of Animal Science. The two microbiologists created and developed a food safety initiative at the Institute of Agriculture that served as the precursor to the new Center of Excellence.

The University of Tennessee will fund the Food Safety Center with $5 million over the next five years. Current research developed by the Institute's food safety initiative has already attracted more than $3 million in federal and private support.

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Executive Summary:

Reports from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicate that the risk of foodborne illness has increased markedly over the last 20 years. Today, nearly a quarter of the US population is at higher risk for foodborne illness. Costs associated with foodborne illnesses are exorbitant, estimated to range from $19 billion to $37 billion annually. A rough estimate of costs associated with foodborne illness in Tennessee is $406 million to $766 million per year. The situation becomes even more problematic because of rapidly changing demographics, with an increasing number of elderly people and immunocompromised individuals who are more susceptible to foodborne pathogens.

The threats are numerous and varied such as Escherichia coli O157:H7 in meat and apple juice; Salmonella in eggs, on vegetables and on poultry; Vibrio in shellfish; Cyclospora and hepatitis A virus on fruit; and Cryptosporidium in drinking water. Much has changed in what we eat and where we eat. Americans are eating a greater variety of foods, particularly poultry, seafood and fresh fruit and vegetables. Americans are also eating more of their meals away from home. This food is purchased and consumed from grocery stores, restaurants, and in institutional settings such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes and day care centers. Consequently, as more people become involved in preparing our meals, the chance for foodborne illness increases dramatically.

Foodborne diseases are a substantial contributor to ill health. Furthermore, new and more virulent foodborne pathogens continue to emerge. Many of these pathogens can be deadly, especially for people at highest risk. A significant food safety issue is use of antibiotics in production agriculture which may be responsible for emergence of drug resistant bacteria, including foodborne pathogens. Antimicrobial resistance has achieved very high national and international visibility. Resistance to antibiotics can be transferred from animal pathogens to pathogens causing disease in humans through contaminated food, which in turn may decrease effectiveness of antimicrobials used to treat bacterial infections in humans. Strategies to minimize microbial pathogen contamination of foods and issues related to antimicrobial resistance will be a significant focus of our research and educational efforts.

Our vision for The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence is to: 1) be the leader in the state, region, nation, and the world in the development and dissemination of science-based information on timely and relevant food safety issues and concerns that will minimize problems associated with foodborne illness; 2) to significantly impact development of new technologies and economic development in the region; and 3) enhance research funding, notoriety and prestige for the university. There are several excellent reasons for establishing The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence such as:

  • Establishing The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence will play an important role towards the university’s goal of becoming a top 25-research university.
  • There are few, if any, national programs with the personnel, resources and facilities to effectively address food safety issues described in this proposal.
  • We are already organized as a team and have an active, successful food safety research initiative in place.
  • We have scientific expertise in microbiology, food science, food processing, animal science, biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, DNA detection technology, DNA physical chemistry, nutrition, immunology, physiology, epidemiology, public health, risk assessment, statistics, economics, engineering, nanotechnology, dairy science, veterinary science, plant and soil science, parasitology and micro-instrumentation from academic units at UT and from outside collaborations with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
  • Federal funding of food safety research has increased dramatically in the last four years and will continue to increase throughout the next decade.
  • Our modest UT Institute of Agriculture Food Safety Initiative has already secured considerable government and private industry funding totaling about $3 million since November 1998.
  • The impact of The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence on the size and scope of graduate programs will be immense.
  • The impact of The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence on faculty development will be significant because of new collaborations, opportunities to partner with scientists outside their area of expertise, and because of the availability of additional resources.
  • The impact on economic development in the region could be huge. Exciting discoveries that result in patentable intellectual property and licensed technologies could spawn new start-up companies.
  • The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence will bring much notoriety and media exposure to UT because our research and educational efforts will address timely and relevant issues that impact every Tennessee citizen.
  • The UT Institute of Agriculture has a significant presence in each county in the state for delivering our research information and educational programs to our stakeholders. This makes our Center unique.
  • Food safety educational programs targeting high school students in grades 9–12 will significantly enhance our student recruitment efforts, especially minority student recruitment.
  • Several scientists from ORNL will be participating in The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence.
  • We currently have collaborative arrangements with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture; UT Health Sciences; and with scientists at USDA, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), CDC, and several universities. Therefore, we will not require additional faculty positions.
  • We are a member of the National Alliance for Food Safety. This national alliance was established by Congress to encourage and support food safety research collaborations between public universities and USDA.
  • Food safety is a politically sensitive area where we can significantly leverage university funds. For example, Tennessee’s Senator Bill Frist and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts are co-sponsoring an amendment to Title III of the Public Health Service Act (S3751), which includes a section on antimicrobial resistance that would create a task force for detection and control, research and development of new drugs and diagnostics, education of medical and public health personnel, and grants for demonstration projects. This indicates bipartisan support in the Senate for antimicrobial resistance research and bodes extremely well for increased funding in the near future. Establishing The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence would put us in an excellent position to secure a significant portion of this research funding as it is appropriated.
  • We are aggressively establishing new collaborative partnerships with private sector companies, particularly biotech companies such as Atom Sciences, Inc., Microbial Insights, BioSterile and Atmospheric Glow Technologies, Inc. We have an active dialog with Dr. Tom Whitaker, President of Atom Sciences, Inc., in Oak Ridge, TN, on how The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence, in collaboration with other Tennessee universities, ORNL, and the private sector could join forces to establish a regional center for the study and control of antibiotic resistance. With Dr. Whitaker, we are communicating this potential to some members of the Tennessee Delegation to gain political support.

Other significant advantages of establishing The UT Food Safety Center of Excellence include:

  • addresses high priority issues identified by "The Committee On The Future" of UT
  • consistent with the vision and mission of UT and UTIA
  • more rapid progress to multi-faceted problems through an interdisciplinary team approach
  • increased grant success via an organized, interdisciplinary research team approach
  • development of a prominent interdisciplinary graduate program
  • increased visibility of UT with consumers, producers and industries in the state and region via utilization of state-of-the-art information technology
  • a clear demonstration to our stakeholders that UT is committed to addressing high priority concerns of the citizens of Tennessee.

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