GRDI-funded research builds Canada's reputation as food safety leader

June 2016

As the wide-ranging Food and Water Safety research project he has coordinated for four years under the Government of Canada's Genomics Research and Development Initiative (GRDI) comes to an end, Dr. Sabah Bidawid does not hesitate to describe the project as a success.

"And I say that without bias," says Dr. Bidawid, Chief of the Microbiology Research Division at Health Canada. "At the beginning of this project, we had a list of clearly defined goals we wanted to achieve and we've reached more than 95 percent of them."

Those successful outcomes will deliver tangible benefits to Canadians, enhancing what is already one of the most respected food safety systems in the world.

Faster identification of threats

"It could take more than a week to confirm the identity of a potentially deadly bacteria like E. coli O157: H7 in a sample of food," says Dr. Bidawid. "Our researchers have developed novel, genomics-based test platforms that can identify the bacteria, from sample to result, in less than a day." These platforms, as well as other complementary approaches are now in the final stages of refinement and will be subjected to rigorous evaluation in the near future.

Understanding and tracking threats

Researchers involved in the project used whole genome sequencing (WGS)—which reveals the differences between even the most closely related strains of a bacteria—to sequence the genomes of hundreds of different strains of verotoxigenic E. coli O157: H7, and non-O157, as well as Salmonella Enteritidis. The genomic data generated were analysed, and catalogued, with relevant information of each strain.

Other researchers focussed on developing bioinformatics tools and applications needed to make efficient use of the data—to identify the location and function of genes in the genome; standardize how genomic data generated by different methodologies are analyzed; and store this information in specific databases.

Strengthening the foundation of food safety

Taken together, genomic-based test methods, genomic data and bioinformatics analysis would enable regulatory agencies to make effective food safety management decisions in a timely manner, which will ultimately contribute to enhancing the safety of the food supply in Canada.

"So, for example, if a bacteria is identified in a sample of food or water, we can quickly compare its DNA fingerprint to bacterial strains already catalogued," says Dr. Bidawid. "If we get a match, then we will have a much greater success in linking various foodborne outbreaks, and in identifying the source of contamination”

International recognition

A less tangible result but one Dr. Bidawid says will have long-term importance to Canada is the attention the Food and Water Safety (FWS) project has received internationally.

"I've presented on the project at a number of international conferences," says Dr. Bidawid. "The response has been amazing—not just for the results we've achieved, but at the way we've achieved those results. I have been asked time-and-again to explain how we were able to put together such a large team of researchers, with a diverse range of expertise from various federal departments and get them all working in a collaborative way toward these shared priorities—and at a cost many times less than what other countries have invested in this type of research."

Collaboration a key

In all, more than 50 scientific experts from six Government of Canada departments and agencies— Health Canada; the Canadian Food Inspection Agency; Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; Environment Canada; the Public Health Agency of Canada; and the National Research Council—were involved in the FWS project.

"Without the GRDI to enable this kind of collaboration across the government, I don't think it would have been possible," says Dr. Bidawid. "We've shown not only that it can be done, but that it is a very effective approach—and it set the stage for the ongoing collaboration we are seeing among these same departments today."

Extending Canada's influence

The FWS project has won more than praise for Canada—it's brought an invitation to join an international committee to develop a global guidance document for the application of genomics in food safety.

"To have a say and influence in the development of international guidelines—rather than simply following ones developed by other countries—is a real advantage," says Dr. Bidawid. "It's also a mark of the international credibility in genomics and food safety management Canada has earned through the FWS project and the GRDI as a whole."

Sharing knowledge - creating opportunity

As a final contribution, the results of the FWS project are being shared with a broad range of end users and stakeholders. This will enable researchers in government and academia to further refine and develop additional applications for the knowledge generated during the project. Others, such as regulatory authorities and the food industry, will have access to new information and more advanced technology to improve on food and water safety. The FWS research is also being shared with private sector organizations that may have an interest in exploring the commercial potential of some of the technologies developed during the project.

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