RTI International Will Conduct Research to Strengthen Food Safety

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C.—Researchers at RTI International will work with North Carolina State University and several other institutions as part of a collaboration to strengthen food safety by studying human noroviruses across the food supply chain.

The project, part of a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is in an effort to design effective control measures and reduce the number of virus-caused food-borne illnesses.

Human noroviruses are the most common cause of food-borne disease, responsible for more than 5 million cases in the United States each year. Noroviruses spread from person to person, through contaminated food or water, and by touching contaminated surfaces. Molluscan shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels, fresh produce and foods that are extensively handled just prior to consumption are at greatest risk for contamination.

Researchers at NC State are leading the five-year project. The group, called the USDA-NIFA Food Virology Collaborative, consists of a team of more than 30 collaborators from academia, industry and government. The team will work to increase understanding of the viruses; educate producers, processors and food handlers on safe handling and preparation of food; and develop control and management strategies to reduce food contamination before and after harvesting.

Researchers at RTI will support the project by developing models that can be used to predict the prevalence and level of norovirus in food and leading the development of wafer technologies to facilitate the rapid and cost-effective detection of norovirus. The RTI team will also conduct surveys to better understand food safety and public health professionals' and consumers' perceptions of the burden of illness from food-borne viral agents.

The project has six core objectives:

  • Develop improved methods of studying human noroviruses and their role in food-borne illnesses
  • Develop and validate rapid and practical methods to detect human noroviruses
  • Collect and analyze data on viral food-borne illnesses—including how they are transmitted—and provide risk and cost analyses
  • Improve understanding of how human noroviruses behave in the food-safety chain in order to develop scientifically justifiable control measures
  • Develop online courses and curricula for food safety and health professionals and food service workers, and provide information to fresh produce and shellfish producers and processors on the risks, management and control of food-borne viruses
  • Develop a public literature database, build virus research capabilities in state public health laboratories, and develop graduate-level curricula to educate masters and doctoral students trained in food virology