North Carolina State University (NCSU) has received a $25 million federal grant to study how human noroviruses are transmitted and survive in food, with a goal of finding better ways to control them and reduce the number of foodborne illnesses they cause.

The grant was announced Wednesday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the annual conference of the International Association for Food Protection in Milwaukee.

Human noroviruses cause more than 21 million illnesses each year, and more than half of all foodborne disease outbreaks are due to noroviruses.

Highly contagious, noroviruses are found in the stools or vomit of infected people, and can be spread through contact with people who are infected — shaking hands or touching something they’ve touched, for instance. Outbreaks occur more often in enclosed settings or close living quarters, such as nursing homes, child-care centers, restaurants, catered events and on cruise ships.

Food and water can become contaminated with noroviruses. The primary foods at risk are molluscan shellfish, fresh produce and foods that are extensively handled just prior to consumption.

There is, as of yet, no vaccine to prevent norovirus infection and there is no specific drug to treat norovirus illness. Infections usually do not cause long-term health problems, but they can cause short-term misery.

NCSU food science professor Lee-Ann Jaykus will lead the team of researchers to establish the USDA-NIFA Food Virology Collaborative. In addition to NCSU, the team will include scientists at Clemson University, Baylor College of Medicine, Emory University and the National Foundation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — all together, more than 30 collaborators from across academia, industry and government.

In addition to developing rapid methods to detect noroviruses and several other objectives, the team will develop online training for food safety and health professionals and food service workers, and provide information to fresh produce and shellfish producers and processors on the risks, management and control of foodborne viruses.

The project grant was awarded through USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative and will be administered through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.