FDA’s GenomeTrakr supports food safety around the globe

There’s Twitter. Uber. Venmo. Facebook. The World Wide Web has brought us no shortage of apps, websites and networks with trendy names and useful functions. For the food industry, now there’s GenomeTrakr.

GenomeTrakr is a network of more than 60 laboratories across the world working in conjunction with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What do these labs have in common? All of them use whole genome sequencing (WGS) to collect and share data about foodborne pathogens, like Listeria, Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli.

Most of the facilities included in the network are public health and university labs. They share geographic data and information on the entire DNA structure, or genome, of various pathogens.

Researchers and public health officials use the publicly available data (and data analyses) to more effectively investigate foodborne illness outbreaks, and hopefully prevent them from even happening in the first place.

According to the network’s website, more than 129,000 isolates, or chunks of genome, have been sequenced by members. More than 175 genomes have been completed.

What’s the point of all this?

With this data, outbreak investigators can track locations where certain pathogen species have been found. In an increasingly globalized food industry, a particular strain of a pathogen can originate in one country and later crop up in one — or many — other far-flung places.

“The first (step) is just to build a database of known pathogens from known foods from known geographic localities,” said the FDA’s Marc Allard in an informational video about the network. “We know from the examples that we’ve tested that you can tell whether Salmonella is from California or from China, and that information can help an investigation in determining where the contaminants entered into the food supply.”

Facilities can use WGS to solve their own pathogen problems by sequencing any pathogens they detect, and having them compared to the strains recorded in the GenomeTrakr database, potentially allowing the source of the outbreak to be identified.

The FDA says that WGS is “inexpensive, easy to use, has identical sample prep for all pathogens, is the most accurate and high resolution subtyping technique, and a single test yields information about resistance, serotype, virulence factors, etc.”

The administration hopes that one day, GenomeTrakr can stretch beyond pathogens that affect human health — animal safety is one area.

“There are other FDA programs that could benefit from this technology,” said Allard. “For example, we are working with FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine to use WGS to monitor for the presence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.”

Neogen offers genomic testing solutions for the food safety industry. For more information, click here.

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