UC Davis/Mars Inc. team advances to finals of FDA Food Safety Challenge

A team from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and scientists from Mars, Inc. has been selected as a finalist for the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Challenge competition. UC Davis and four other finalists will travel to Washington D.C. this summer to participate in a technology “demo day” where the final winner will be selected.

The finalists were selected for potential breakthrough ideas on how to find disease-causing organisms in food – especially Salmonella in fresh, minimally processed produce. The FDA is also looking for solutions that can test for other microbial pathogens in other foods.

Food poisoning affects one in six Americans every year, according to the FDA. Salmonella alone causes over a million illnesses, thousands of hospitalizations and some 450 deaths a year. Yet identifying a small amount of harmful bacteria on produce, among many more that are harmless or even potentialy beneficial, is difficult.

Team members are: from the School of Veterinary Medicine, Professor Bart Weimer, graduate student Azarene Foutouhi and postdoc Dylan Storey; and Bob Baker and Peter Markwell, both senior scientists at Mars, Inc.

The UC Davis-Mars Inc. team entry features patented “high throughput captured concentration” technology invented by Weimer and further demonstrated through a research partnership with Mars Inc. for use in many foods. The test uses fluidized bed technology and beads that grab the bacteria from the food, and can recognize, detect and verify bacteria in less than four hours without the need for growing the microbes. This will provide the food industry with a test that reduces the time from about one week to less than one day.

“Our technology is sensitive, fast and accurate and allows us to test large sample volumes, which is needed by large food processing operations and has been lacking in the past,” said Weimer. “It doesn’t require the growing of bacteria which is time consuming.”

This first-ever FDA Food Safety Challenge was developed under the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010, which grants all federal agencies broad authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their core missions. A panel of food safety and pathogen detection experts from the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture judged the submissions, determined finalists, and will select a winner. The UC Davis-Mars Inc. team was awarded $20,000 from a total prize pool of $500,000, with the remaining pot to be distributed to the winner.

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