The five finalists of the Food and Drug Administration’s 2014 Food Safety Challenge presented their work to judges Tuesday afternoon during “Demo Day.” The contest was launched last fall to encourage academic institutions and laboratories to develop methods for better and faster detection of Salmonella in food. Forty-nine teams submitted proposals between Sept. 23 and Nov. 9. The finalists were announced in May, and each was given $20,000 to further develop their projects and be mentored by FDA employees during a “boot camp” at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in May. The seven judges — five from FDA, one from the Department of Agriculture, and one from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — will choose who wins the rest of the prize purse by the end of July. “Sometimes, no matter how good you are, you may become a little myopic in your field,” said Palmer Orlandi, FDA’s acting Chief Science Officer and Research Director, in describing the background for the challenge. “Sometimes you may not be able to see the ‘big picture’ or see the picture a little bit differently.”

Palmer Orlandi, FDA’s Acting Chief Science Officer and Research Director, introduces the Food Safety Challenge “Demo Day.”
There are plenty of ideas outside the agency that were never intended to be used for food safety but could be applicable to the field, he added. On Tuesday, a member from each team of finalists had 15 minutes to present their project, followed by 10 minutes to answer questions from the judges. The first presenter was Michael Landisch of Purdue University whose team worked on concentrating Salmonella to detectable levels with a process that involves filtering the pathogenic cells out of a stomached food sample using hollow fibers. The process cuts sample preparation down from 24-48 hours to just 2-3 hours. The team from the University of Illinois and Purdue are developing a “point of care” handheld system that incorporates both sample preparation and pathogen detection. They use microchips to detect pathogenic genes from biomolecular reactions. The team estimates that concentrating the cells takes about two hours and detection adds another 45 minutes. Pronucleotein Inc. has developed an on-site screening system in which aptamers replace antibodies. The single-stranded DNA molecules bind to the pathogens in a sample. Total assay processing and analysis time is approximately 30 minutes. Bart Weimer, who worked with University of California-Davis and Mars Inc., presented a means of capturing and concentrating Salmonella using a novel type of large glass bead that precedes a culture-independent diagnostic test. The process takes about three hours. And Auburn University developed a biosensor that can detect pathogens directly on the surface of foods. Presenter Brian Chin said the detection takes 2-12 minutes. Michael Taylor, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, spoke at the beginning of the session of the “excitement and satisfaction” the challenge has brought to FDA. “We absolutely put the science base first,” Taylor said. “Our goal is achieving outcomes that matter to consumers … but it is all grounded in science.” FDA can’t succeed in its work without working with others who bring different expertise and perspectives, he added. At the conclusion of the presentations, Orlandi reiterated that although there is prize money involved in the challenge, “once the contest part of it is completed, that doesn’t mean that the collaborations and the interactions need to end.” He encourage FDA, CDC and USDA colleagues to continue reaching out to entrants because there are many food safety needs at agency laboratories. “This is where it all begins,” Orlandi said. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)