Food sustains us but also can endanger us. In the first major public health project between Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine and Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar, a team of multidisciplinary cross-continental collaborators aims to mitigate food contamination and keep food clean, from production to consumption, in Qatar.
With a $1 million grant from the Qatar Research Foundation, Hussni Mohammed, professor of epidemiology at the Veterinary College, is leading a project to assess risks associated with food-poisoning pathogens. Drawing from a network of faculty and resources spanning the two campuses, Mohammed's team will carry out risk assessment studies to model how pathogens put the public at risk in order to better inform efforts to control contamination.
"We are investigating the epidemiology and ecology of food-borne pathogens as they move through the food chain from the sources to the table in Qatar," said Mohammed. "Four kinds of bacteria pose major threats to Qatar's food systems: Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria monocytogenes. We aim to determine each species' prevalence; to identify agent, host and environmental factors that perpetuate these pathogens; and to ascertain factors such as antibiotic resistance that could contribute to development of new virulent strains."
This research will help answer questions crucial to addressing contamination. Does infected milk come from infected cows? Or are pathogens more likely to enter the food chain in the packaging facility, during transportation or at the retailers where milk is ultimately sold?
Following food from farm to table, Mohammed's team investigates all levels of the supply chain, drawing samples from food animals, their products, the environments they pass through and the humans consuming them. Using bacteriological and PCR techniques to test for pathogens at each level, Mohammed is constructing data-driven mathematical models to determine where and how these pathogens infiltrate the food supply system.
"The models we develop will help producers and public agencies develop and implement cost-effective and science-based strategies to ensure the safety and sustainability of Qatar's food supply system," said Mohammed. "Taking our data a step further, we are using the samples from humans to search for ties between food-poisoning pathogens and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Little is known about IBD, but several studies suggest it is caused by bacterial imbalances in the gut. We hope our data can help elucidate correlations between these food-borne pathogens and IBD."
He added: "Qatar is a quickly developing country committed to supporting new research through the Qatar Foundation. It is a privilege to be involved with a project in Qatar that could have life-changing applications for public health in the region and in the wider world."