With developing countries shipping more food to the U.S., biotechs face the opportunities — and challenges — of ensuring imports are safe for consumption.
Maryland biotech executives joined federal and academic food safety representatives to discuss meeting these needs during a panel discussion at this past week’s Mid-Atlantic Bio Conference in North Bethesda.
Food illness costs Americans more than $40 million per year, said Kara Cooper, a senior scientist with MRIGlobal’s Global Health and Security in Kansas City, Mo. Cooper’s nonprofit contract research organization works with both industry and government clients.
The U.S. imports 40 percent of its fruit, 20 percent of its vegetables and 80 percent of its seafood.
“We need research and tools to assess risks and deal with contamination as it occurs,” she said.
Current methods consist of taking swabs and sending them to labs for testing, which can take several days or even close to a week, said Ted Olsen, president and CEO of PathSensors in Baltimore.
Companies such as his are trying to provide tools to analyze pathogens in real time and provide data that can be evaluated on a regular basis, Olsen said. PathSensors provides a system that senses pathogens via an aerosol collector and identifies them.
Instead of a situation in which a chicken farm might swab an area and send out samples two weeks before processing the birds, companies should look toward offering a system that can analyze the area the day of processing, Olsen said.
“We’re looking for something to allow detection in a single day,” said Thomas S. Hammack, acting director of the Food and Drug Adminstration’s division of microbiology in Silver Spring.
Many of the perishable foods people enjoy have short shelf lives and cannot wait for several days between testing and results. Hammack also said his administration would like to see technology that helps rule out false positives during testing.
Another challenge in the food safety industry is the ever-evolving strains of bacteria, said Douglas White, CEO of OpGen in Gaithersburg.
White pointed out many strains already are mutating to resist current methods of treatment, which opens up new opportunities for discovery.
“The goal is to reduce the time it takes to find the source and prevent further outbreak,” he said, adding this can be difficult when sorting through the “enormous” amount of pathogen data available.
Greater infrastructure is required to handle all of information and make it more easily accessible, White said.
OpGen is a DNA analysis company that focuses on microbiology analysis, which is effective for tracking contaminated food outbreaks, White said.
At the University of Maryland, College Park, the International Food Safety Training Laboratory is doing its own part to standardize food safety procedures.
The challenge is coming up with testing methods that can be used in areas with limited resources, said Janie Dubois, manager of the laboratory. She was referring to developing countries that might not have any food safety systems.
Dubois’ lab trains both U.S. and international food analysts in best practices for food safety and testing.
“Food safety gets more complicated as we increase the distance food travels,” she said. “We have to think how it affects the communities when they realize they have a contaminated crop that now nobody can use.”