Food safety fingerprinting

by Joel Crews
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Public health agencies have adopted whole genome sequencing to enhance food safety and traceability efforts.
Public health agencies have adopted whole genome sequencing to enhance food safety and traceability efforts.
 

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) has been around for many years, however it has evolved from a costly, time-consuming and labor-intensive technology that previously was not a practical option for food safety professionals. Its adoption and application by regulators and public health officials in the US has gained momentum in recent years and it is part of plans to create a global database to enhance food safety and traceability when foodborne illness outbreaks occur. The technology allows public health officials to determine the complete DNA sequence of individual bacterium, creating what is comparable to a fingerprint for each one.

While not a new technology, WGS has evolved over the years and more advanced equipment has been developed that has led to new generation sequencing, which facilitates more efficient, faster sample preparation that is less costly than in the past.

“It used to cost thousands of dollars to run one test and now we’re down to a hundred dollars,” says Michael Doyle, who recently retired as regents’ professor of microbiology and director of the Center for Food Safety at the Univ. of Georgia.

Robert Tauxe, Ph.D., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Robert Tauxe, Ph.D., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Expediency is another benefit both domestically and globally, according to Robert Tauxe, Ph.D., director of the division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “We are finding and solving more outbreaks, but finding them when they are smaller,” Tauxe said, during a panel discussion about WGS technology at the Global Food Safety Conference in Houston this year. “Whole genome sequencing is a major step forward in outbreak detection and investigation.”

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