Ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply includes taking steps to prevent the food we eat from becoming contaminated with harmful microbial pathogens. Accordingly, FDA’s human foods program employs scientists whose work is dedicated to: detecting and accurately identifying harmful foodborne pathogens; understanding the environmental conditions favorable to the introduction, growth, persistence, and spread of these pathogens in food production environments; and determining ways to mitigate or eliminate the presence of the pathogens when possible. To accomplish this work, FDA scientists develop and refine methods to detect and isolate pathogens from a variety of food, processing, and environmental sources; utilize whole genome sequencing and metagenomic sequencing; conduct research in laboratory environments that allow for environmental factors to be independently controlled to mimic growing field conditions; and perform longitudinal environmental microbiology studies in and around active growing areas.
In addition to their research activities, the scientists provide expert advice and technical support on a wide range of FDA activities, including but not limited to: sample testing conducted by FDA field labs; understanding the human health risks posed by specific pathogenic strains; policy and guidance development; evaluating the effectiveness of preventive controls for microbial hazards; and assessing the adequacy of analytical evidence to support potential regulatory actions. They also develop technical content for programs designed to help industry implement preventive measures and comply with the laws and regulations FDA enforces.
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Understanding which environmental factors are favorable to the presence or spread of foodborne pathogens in growing areas is important to achieving food safety. It enables regulatory officials and industry groups to refine guidance on best practices for growers, so they may continually improve the safety of their products. It is also an area in which there is still much to be learned.
Whole genome sequencing (WGS) is a cutting-edge technology that FDA has put to a novel and public health-promoting use. FDA is laying the foundation for the use of whole genome sequencing to protect consumers from foodborne illness in countries all over the world.