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Food safety a concern for K-State, United States

By Mark Berry



There is a struggle humans have waged for centuries, but we don't think much about it in our daily lives because we keep finding new ways to protect ourselves. Now, however, it's getting more difficult.

The struggle is about the safety of a vital substance we need to live -- food. Food safety and security is at the heart of Kansas State University's mission, and researchers constantly work on new ways to protect the food supply.

The threat of an agricultural disaster is growing, said Ron Trewyn, vice provost for research at K-State. He said that as the world becomes more globalized, it becomes harder to keep foreign diseases from entering the United States. Potential carriers of disease are constantly moving in and out of the country. Also, the events of Sept. 11 showed the danger of terrorism, which in the future could come in the form of an agricultural attack.

Bioterrorism expert Jerry Jaax said it would be easier to attack agricultural targets than human ones, since many of the diseases that could be used would be less dangerous to the terrorists who spread them. The terrorists would also be harder to detect in rural areas.

Jaax pointed out that the last time the United States saw or heard from Osama Bin Laden, he was exhorting his followers to attack the U.S. economy. He said an agricultural threat would fall squarely into that category.

Jaax said K-State is working to help protect the nation against accidental or intentional biological threats.

"Because many of these agents are infectious, they require specialized facilities that provide a significant level of safety and security. K-State is looking to play upon its inherent capabilities in plant and animal pathogens to contribute in this area," Jaax said.

Jaax's wife, Nancy Jaax, joined K-State in January as program director for food safety and security. She came to K-State from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

"We have ongoing research and education activities in all the areas of food safety and security," Trewyn said. "But we need to be better prepared to deal with threats to the food system and better at detecting emerging diseases."

Trewyn said Nancy Jaax has started building a national network allowing K-State to work with such organizations as the U.S. military and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Groups like this can provide funding for the university and the university can help them with research and training.

The West Nile Virus, which is expected to reach the Midwest this summer, is an example of the need to quickly diagnose new diseases, Jerry Jaax said. The disease causes flu-like illnesses in humans, and can be fatal to horses and birds. A vaccine for West Nile Virus has been developed, but he said the country was slow in recognizing its presence.

"Speed is absolutely critical," Jerry Jaax said. "It's so important to have the diagnostics and capability to deal with something close by, so the outbreak doesn't get so big you can't control it."

Trewyn said the Ebola virus, West Nile Virus and Nipah, a swine virus that killed more than 100 people in Malaysia in 1998 and 1999, are examples of diseases that cross over from animals to humans. Other diseases, like foot-and-mouth, are confined only to animals but devastate the agricultural economy long after they have been eliminated, according to Jim Guikema, associate vice provost for graduate research.

"Once the consumers lose confidence in an industry, it's tough to get it back," he said.

The anthrax attacks may have caused people to underestimate the danger of biological terrorism, Jerry Jaax said. He said one gram of the anthrax powder could kill up to 1 million people if it is dispersed effectively. He said that though the average person may forget about bioterrorism if no more terrorist attacks occur soon, the national government will not.

"From the aggressive response of the government to find ways to protect the population against these bioterrorism, I think we'll be in this for a long time," Jerry Jaax said.

Spring 2002