Solving food poisoning investigations with DNA

Solving food poisoning investigations with DNA


My name is Burton Blais. I’m the head of research and development at the Ottawa laboratory Carling of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. So our laboratory provides research and development support to our testing labs and our main area focus is in the area of detecting and identifying the presence of pathogenic microorganisms in foods. Well what’s been really interesting here is that I’ve actually seen some of the techniques that were developed in our lab be implemented in supporting foodborne illness events that are occurring across the border. They had an outbreak an actual outbreak people were actually sick in the US so they were doing a big investigation and normally when that happens we’ll start testing the product here to make sure that we’re not importing the problem that’s the impact right there is that this you know a fairly major product brand that was clearly causing illness in the state it was coming into Canada and we wanted to make sure that what we’re importing wasn’t contaminated we were able to do some very very quick testing and determine that yep, it’s contaminated to, so that’s it we’re not selling this to Canadians we’ll not allow Canadian consumers to be exposed to this. Genomics is relatively new science in which we seek to understand the genetic blueprint of microorganisms. If you use the analogy of a house it would be like having the blueprints and the scantling’s for a particular house so you would not only of course see the exterior manifestation of that house but you would also see the detailed floorplan and the materials that went into its constructions and perhaps even details of its engineering properties. So genomics basically gives us that kind of very highly detailed perspective of microorganisms. In a food borne illness outbreak investigation scenario genomic techniques have proven to provide great advantages. We now have access to technology that enables us to very rapidly and accurately determine the entire DNA sequence of microorganism like an E.coli or Salmonella bacteria. Getting out a high-resolution DNA fingerprint you can actually determine whether or not a contamination event is of a sporadic nature or whether it’s of a more persistent nature a more long-term chronic contamination of a food manufacturing and environment and knowing this can make a big big difference in terms of what the appropriate risk mitigation protocols are that should be applied to deal with the problem I find it really gratifying to be able to see the kind of impact that the work we’re doing is having to solve actual problems and to see that we’re actually preventing illness in Canada because of some of the tools that we’ve developed. There are a number of different areas where genomics will help us to do our job as food inspectors a whole lot better. One of them is being able to have a better understanding of why some organisms are more pathogenic or more dangerous to human health than others and so that will help us to really refine our inspection activity so that they’re targeted towards those scenarios that present a higher risk to the public and I think that ultimately that will improve the effectiveness of our food inspection approaches.

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