Conversations & Collaborations

How Groundbreaking Genome Sequencing is Speeding Up Outbreak Control + More with JIFSAN Director, Dr. Meng

Sometimes when you think of people and organizations doing research, you may think it sounds pretty ho-hum. You’re likely thinking: How does this actually help anything that affects me?

In the world of food safety, we know this can happen, too.

Well, in this article, we’re so thrilled to bring you some nuggets of research brilliance (and more) from Dr. Jianghong Meng, Director of the Joint Institute of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) at the University of Maryland that’ll paint a clear picture of how some of their research findings are preventing more illnesses and deaths from foodborne disease.

So, settle in for a few minutes and step into the life of Dr. Meng with our Q & A interview. You’ll find out why his passion, smarts, savvy, and drive are making big waves when it comes to keeping you and your family safe from contaminated food.

Q: First, tell us how your career in food safety began?
A: It started in 1985 when I taught a food hygiene course at Sichuan Agricultural University in China. In 1986, I was awarded a scholarship to begin my graduate studies in food safety at the University of California, Davis. After that, I received my PhD in Comparative Pathology in 1992. I then went on to the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia for postdoctoral training.

Since 1996, I’ve been a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Maryland where I teach advanced food microbiology, along with advising grad students and postdoctoral scholars on research plans, experimental designs, data analysis, and publications. I also conduct food safety research, which I absolutely love.

In 2007, I joined JIFSAN as Acting Director and was appointed Director in 2009. In this role, I provide leadership in the areas of program operation, management, and future development. On a daily basis, I meet and collaborate with key stakeholders that drive our important work including government representatives, particularly the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as industry and international partners. A large chunk of my time is spent working closely with JIFSAN’s staff on program plans and development. I also attend many national and international food safety meetings.

 

Q: Your research focuses on the identification and characterization of foodborne pathogens and bacterial antimicrobial resistance. How does your research benefit everyday people like our readers?
A: Great question! Let me share one specific example.

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) technology provides the most comprehensive collection of genetic variation, which can be applied to identification and characterization of foodborne pathogens. We’re part of FDA’s GenomeTrakr program, which is a network of laboratories used for WGS pathogen identification. This program consists of public health and university laboratories that collect and share genomic and geographic data of foodborne pathogens. The data is housed in public databases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which can be accessed by researchers and public health officials for REAL-TIME COMPARISON and ANALYSIS that helps speed up foodborne illness outbreak investigations.

This is a BIG breakthrough.

JIFSAN has sequenced hundreds of strains of important foodborne pathogens including Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. Our efforts advance more rapid and accurate identification, as well as source tracking of these pathogens. This has major potential for dramatically reducing foodborne illnesses and deaths.

So, for instance, if there’s an E. coli outbreak affecting people in your community, public health investigators can quickly use WGS to match DNA obtained from E. coli in samples taken from people who had become ill to those found in the food samples. Additionally, bacteria found in the food processing environment or on a farm could also be tested to see if they match those from patients using WGS. This process eliminates many traditional laboratory steps and can track down the source of contamination in days instead of weeks or months—and it’s remarkably accurate.

 

Q: As JIFSAN Director, you collaborate with our CEO, Deirdre Schlunegger. What do you find most valuable about STOP’s involvement with JIFSAN?
A: We really enjoy working with Deirdre and always appreciate her valuable support of JIFSAN’s programs. As an Advisory Council member, she gives advice on future directions and guides us in developing research, education, and outreach programs to address food safety problems.

Deirdre’s input is vital when it comes to our discussions on food safety from consumers’ perspectives. One of the most important consumer-related issues is food safety risk communication. JIFSAN has organized several symposia sponsored by our Advisory Council to address this issue with topics such as “Risk Communication – Communicating Science to the Public” and “Communicating Food Risk in an Era of Social Media.” Deirdre’s been instrumental in helping us choose topics that are interesting to consumers.

Deirdre also serves on the Council’s membership committee where she advises me on Council recruitment. Our aim is to recruit the best, most influential leaders in the food safety field with representation of all aspects of JIFSAN programs. With Deirdre’s involvement, STOP has been a hugely positive contributor to making JIFSAN a strong, dynamic, effective organization.

 

Q: Tell us about JIFSAN’s food inspector training program. What is it and what does it accomplish?
A: JIFSAN has conducted numerous outreach training programs globally. Over 5,000 professionals from 55 countries have participated in these programs.

A critical need in many countries is establishment of an adequate number of qualified food inspectors. This need is recognized and emphasized in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). We developed our Food Inspector Training Program in 2012 with the aim of training inspectors on the critical points to inspect along the supply chain to ensure food safety. Experts from JIFSAN, FDA, and the food industry developed our training materials, which have been drawn from international sources such as Codex Alimentarius and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), as well as from published requirements of FDA. The first course was piloted in Nanning, China in May 2012 with great success. Since then, the program has been offered several times in China and Malaysia with hundreds of government inspectors and industry managers/specialists being trained.

 

Q: What do you feel is the single biggest challenge with respect to preventing foodborne illness?
A: Recent food production and supply changes, including the explosion of imported foods.

Because of this, JIFSAN has well-positioned itself as a premier source in providing education and training programs on food safety practices in production and technical methods for food testing and monitoring to industry and government food safety professionals in the U.S. and abroad. JIFSAN’s food safety capacity-building programs play a significant role in support of FSMA. We’re very focused on this complex challenge, so we’ll continue expanding and upgrading the scope of trainings related to these issues.

 

Q: What would you like to see STOP and our supporters do to help further promote your food safety efforts?
A: I think increasing public awareness, which has the power to propel people into positive action, is paramount.

On behalf of JIFSAN, I invite your readers to build more awareness around our food safety outreach programs, which range from risk analysis to hands-on laboratory training to food production best practices. Our online resources are unique including databases and tools useful to food safety research and education.

You can check out JIFSAN’s programs at www.jifsan.umd.edu and www.foodrisk.org.

One area I’d love for you to visit is the section on JIFSAN’s symposia and webinars under http://jifsan.umd.edu/events/. There are PDF files and videos of speakers’ presentations. You may also want to dive into the topic of what we eat in America, which you can find in our Food Commodity Intake database at http://fcid.foodrisk.org/.

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About Dr. Jianghong Meng

Dr. Jianghong Meng is Director of the Joint Institute of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) and Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Maryland, College Park. He’s been married for 26 years to Shaohua Zhao, a scientist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Meng and his wife live in Silver Spring, Maryland and have three children, Kevin, Sean, and Laura. Dr. Meng enjoys reading and hiking when he’s not working, teaching, or conducting food safety research.

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