Protecting the nation's food supply from contamination - either accidental or intentional - is the goal of a new research center at the University of Maryland.
In addition to developing methods to prevent the types of bacterial outbreak that have made headlines in recent months, researchers at the university's Center for Food Systems Security and Safety also will work to safeguard food from terrorist attack.
"Recent events have shown that we need to do a better job in these areas," said Cheng-i Wei, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who will oversee the center's operations.
Contaminated lettuce was the suspected source of an outbreak of E. coli at Taco Bell restaurants that sickened 71 people in five states late last year. In September, bagged spinach contaminated by E. coli was blamed for the deaths of three people and the sickening of 200 others in 26 states.
There is growing concern that future food-borne illnesses could be intentional.
The U.S. food processing and distribution system presents many opportunities for contamination with pathogenic microorganisms or toxic substances, Wei said.
"The possibility of sabotage by terrorists has become a greater concern since 9/11," Wei said. "We need new protections of our food supply from the field to the processing plant to the dinner table."
A task force, appointed by Wei to determine the need for the center, quoted warnings expressed by Tommy Thompson, who was secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services during President Bush's first term. Upon leaving office late in 2004, Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin, said he was surprised that the food supply had not been attacked by terrorists "because it is so easy to do."
A primary focus of the center's researchers will be identifying vulnerabilities in the nation's food system, Wei said.
"It only takes a few packages of contaminated food to create psychological chaos and a lack of faith in our food supply system," Wei said. "And this could have a big economic impact."
Hurricane Katrina showed there also is a need to revise the nation's emergency-preparedness policy so food and drinking water can be distributed more rapidly to areas affected by natural disasters, he said.
Wei is not alone in seeing the need for increased efforts to safeguard the nation's food supply.
"We are glad they are doing this," said Tony Corbo, legislative representative at Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based consumer watchdog group. "There has to be an independent look at our food system that is not swayed by politics."
Sanford A. Miller, the former director of the food safety office at the Food and Drug Administration, said recent outbreaks of salmonella from tainted tomatoes and the E. coli in bagged spinach "show there is a critical need for additional research [on] safeguards in our food system."
"We have a very safe food supply, considering how big it is," Miller said. "But people do not expect their food to hurt them. They expect it to be perfect. It has to be."
Miller is a professor at the University of Maryland's Center for Food Nutrition and Agriculture Policy. He said he would join the school's food safety center as it moves forward.
Wei said the center was formally established in October but is not yet fully operational. Mickey Parish, chairman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science, is serving as acting director until a director is appointed this spring.
The center will be based in Symons Hall and will draw on the university's current food research staff. The university already is one of the nation's leading food-research organizations, with almost 100 researchers, Wei said.
He said the center would be financed by federal grants as well as companies in the food industry.
It will work with various federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The campus' proximity to Washington also will be advantageous, Wei said.
The center also hopes to form partnerships with other universities, including Delaware, Penn State, Rutgers, Virginia Tech and West Virginia University.
The goal is to have the center become an internationally recognized leader in the field of food safety, similar to the way the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel has become one of the nation's top defense research universities.
A native of Taiwan, Wei came to the United States in 1974. He was appointed to his present job with the university in September 2005. He previously served as professor and associate dean for research with the College of Human Environmental Services at Oklahoma State University.
He was with the University of Maryland only a few months when he announced plans for making it one of the top five agricultural research institutions in the nation.