“How can we improve the safety of the food supply?” asked Cornell food scientist Carmen Moraru.
Moraru, professor of food science in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, joined academic peers and the Supporters of Agriculture Research Foundation in Washington, D.C., Nov. 2 to highlight the importance of research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).
AFRI provides grants to support research on topics that include plant and animal health, food safety and agricultural technology. Moraru received AFRI funding to support research to develop bacteria-resistant surfaces capable of combating foodborne illness resulting from contamination of food-processing equipment.
Moraru presented her research in congressional briefings to both the Senate and the House of Representatives. “Bacterial biofilms cause severe contamination problems in the food sector,” she said. “Bacteria attaches to processing equipment or other food contact surfaces, such as countertops, utensils, or sinks, and create biofilms that are impervious to normal cleaning procedures and detergents, making them difficult to remove. Biofilms act as reservoirs for pathogens that are transferred to our food.”
She emphasized the human and economic cost of bacterial contamination by referencing USDA data indicating that more than 8.9 million Americans are affected by foodborne illness annually. Of those, over 53,000 are hospitalized and more than 2,300 die from foodborne illness. The data also show that the direct cost of such foodborne illness to the U.S. economy is $15.6 billion each year.
Moraru’s research, conducted collaboratively with Diana Borca-Tasciuc’s group from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, uses nanotechnology to create alumina surfaces that repel pathogenic bacteria and prevent the development of biofilms, creating a “nonstick” surface for equipment used in food production. “Our method for creating bacteria-repellent surfaces not only improves the safety of our food supply, but is inexpensive, can be used commercially, and can be scaled for large and complex objects,” she said.
Her research has applications beyond the food sector, including in the medical industry. “Infections resulting from surgery could be prevented with catheters, dental implants and artificial bone implants made from bacteria-resistant materials, like nanoengineered titanium,” Moraru said.
The next step in the group’s research is to apply lessons learned from aluminum to stainless steel, a greater technological challenge but a standard material used in food processing and other industries. The continuation of this and other projects dedicated to advancing food safety rely on federal funding provided by USDA through programs such as AFRI. AFRI was authorized in the Farm Bill to be funded at $700 million per year, but was appropriated $375 million per year through the budgeting process. Moraru urged policymakers to increase funding available for projects that help solve critical issues in food and agriculture. “Without additional funding, advances in food safety like bacteria-resistant stainless steel will never happen, and we will lose our competitiveness on the global scene,” she said.
Rachel Rhodes is a public affairs and media relations specialist in Cornell University’s Washington, D.C., office.