GRDI supports multi-department effort to strengthen food and water safety

Canada is ranked consistently as one of the best countries in the world in which to live. Many things contribute to the enviable quality of life we enjoy in Canada, including one of the strongest and most effective food safety systems in the world.

A new research project supported by the Government of Canada's Genomics and Research Development Initiative (GRDI) promises to add an even greater level of safety to our food and water supply.

Launched in 2012, the GRDI Food and Water Safety (FWS) pilot project brings together the expertise of close to 50 scientists from six federal departments and agencies to apply the potential of genomics to enhance food and water safety. The potential is impressive — faster detection and identification of contaminants; better tools to track down the source of microbial contamination; and new strategies to reduce the risk of contaminants entering or spreading through the food and water supply.

Multiple departments, multiple focus

The FWS project is led by Health Canada, under the coordination of Dr. Sabah Bidawid, and includes researchers from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Environment Canada (EC), the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and the National Research Council (NRC).

As Nathalie Corneau, the FWS Project Manager from Health Canada explains, researchers involved in the project are focussing simultaneously on three key areas of research, beginning with isolation and detection.

"Even with the best methods available today, it can take as long as a week to isolate and identify a contaminant such as E. coli from ground beef," says Ms Corneau. "That's a risk — a lot of food can be distributed before we find out it may be contaminated."

Health Canada researchers are developing new methods for preparing food and water samples that could reduce the time needed to isolate a contaminant for identification to as little as one day.

"We are working closely with our colleagues at NRC, who are developing new technologies — highly sensitive biosensors and portable microfluidic devices that could be used to identify bacteria in the field in a matter of minutes," says Ms. Corneau. "We need to provide a sample compatible with these new detection platforms, so for those of us on the isolation and detection team, our task, in a sense, is to figure out a way to get a 325 gram lump of ground beef to fit into a tube about the size of a human hair."

Getting the data

The second focus is on information gathering. Researchers from AAFC, CFIA, PHAC and EC are collecting samples throughout the food chain, from farms to grocery stores, as well as from lakes, rivers and coastal waters to check for and identify potential sources of contamination. The genomes of any significant contaminants they find, along with hundreds of others, are being sequenced using next-generation, automated equipment at PHAC.

And putting it to work

The third focus of the FWS project is bioinformatics. "Without bioinformatics," says Ms. Corneau, "We have no way of putting all the genomic information we gather to work for Canadians."

Researchers are in the early stages of compiling an integrated collection of genomic data and related information from food and water-borne pathogens. The database would be a national resource, open to researchers, public health agencies and others across Canada, and could be used in a variety of ways, from supporting basic research to aiding in the investigation of outbreaks of food- or water-borne illness.

Ms. Corneau says providing faster identification of a pathogen is just one example.

"As genomics technology improves, we may soon be able to obtain the small bit of DNA that provides a pathogen's unique genetic signature in as little as a day or two," says Ms. Corneau. "Once you have that genetic signature, it could be fed into a computer where it would be matched against all the other signatures in the database. Within minutes, we'd know what it was. Since the database would also contain information about where pathogens have been found in the past, we might also have an indication of the places it could have come from."

Safety and economic benefits

The GRDI-FWS project has the potential to lead to a significant enhancement of Canada's already strong food and water safety programs.

With faster identification of contaminants, warnings could be issued earlier and recalls of potentially contaminated products could be initiated sooner, limiting the spread of infection. This would also reduce the cost for producers and others in the industry, since smaller amounts of suspect food would have to be recalled.

"These are really meaningful benefits to Canadians," says Ms. Corneau. "And not just better investigations and faster recalls — by understanding more about where the harmful bacteria come from and how they are spread, this research can also support the development of new measures to reduce the risk of them entering the food supply chain in the first place."

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