New food safety lab brandishes latest technology

Managing Editor

PAINTER, Va. (June 13, 2017) — It may still be housed in the basement, but a state-of-the-art laboratory has elevated produce food safety research at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
“When you walk through this door it’ll really rival any university lab,” said Dr. Laura Strawn, food safety specialist at the AREC, standing at the new lab’s entrance.
An older lab for microbiology research had long become outdated and too small for the work AREC staff was pursuing.
Recognizing the importance of produce food safety to the Eastern Shore and Delmarva Peninsula’s agriculture industry, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the AREC invested $500,000 to install the new Biological Safety Level II lab, which allows researchers to handle all major food borne pathogens, and greatly expands the center’s research capabilities in microbiology.
In addition to the lab on the center’s lower level, another room has expanded collection and storage for pathogen strains that will assist in more diverse and specific research.
A multi-disciplinary instrumentation room where equipment for research in weed science, soils, entomology, plant pathology and horticulture also is in the works in the newly transformed space, formerly used for general storage.
Strawn added the new lab is larger, better lit, designed for better work flow and, perhaps most important, climate controlled.
“That really helps,” she said. “It’s hard to do microbiology when you don’t have good air quality and ventilation.”
The larger lab, combined with the old lab being used for supply storage and prep work, can now facilitate multiple projects at the same time, something that was nearly impossible before.
“We can really multi-task and get research results even faster,” said Rachel Pfuntner, researcher and lab manager.
“It allows us to do more projects here and basically have a microbiology program here on the shore,” Strawn said.
The added workspace and flexiibilty also made way for hiring some local high school students interested in microbiology for summer work.
One key upgrade is the ability to do molecular characterization of individual bacteria strains. Before, Strawn said they could only determine the presence of the bacteria, not the specific strain.
“We’ll be able to do that characterization work here on the shore. We’ll be able to pinpoint sources and track them a little better,” she said.
Strawn credits Steve Sturgis, a Northampton County farmer and county Farm Bureau president who also sits on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors as a key part of making the new lab a reality.
“He was just a total champion for getting this to happen,” she said.
Sturgis said the Eastern Shore’s vegetable growers collectively advocated for the lab as much as anyone.
“Food safety is the No. 1 issue for us,” he said. “As soon as any rumor comes up about contamination, true or not, it can devastate a whole year’s worth of work.”
Sturgis added the university’s commitment to the new lab really goes back to the college creating a new produce safety specialist position on the Eastern Shore that Strawn started in in November 2015.
“Why bring in an auto mechanic if you don’t give them a shop to work in?” Sturgis said.
Straw said produce safety research at the AREC is mostly focused on improving post-harvest handling and sanitation, looking at ways to reduce risk of contamination.
“It’s not just one thing you can do. It’s a lot of little things that add up to make a big difference,” Strawn said.
She used one example from an ongoing Center for Produce Safety-funded project looking at the transfer of salmonella and listeria pathogens in cantaloupe.
Part of the research focused on the gloves harvest crews used in the field.
Data collected by graduate student Laura Truitt showed thinner nitrile gloves and cotton gloves had a lower transfer rate than thicker rubber gloves that pickers tended to prefer.
“That’s a really small decision they could make but it could have a big impact,” Strawn said.
Other projects underway in Strawn’s program are looking at the survivability of pathogens in soil amendments including poultry litter and cattle manure and another measuring the possibility of internalization of pathogens in tomatoes.
A monitoring program is also starting with cooperating packing houses to watch how pathogens travel and look for weak points in their spread.
With all the new technology and capabilities in the lab, the produce safety team is ramping up it’s social media activity with an Instagram account, @strawnlabvt, to stay in touch with stakeholders.
“We’re trying to be better about giving our stakeholders some glimpses of what we’re doing on a more regular basis,” Strawn said.