By Omar Oyarzabal, Ph.D., University of Vermont Extension
For years, there has been a buzz about how genome sequencing is revolutionizing food safety. It is definitely an incredible tool giving an immediate understanding of the genetic composition of microbial pathogens, including bacteria and viruses. However, there are still gaps needing filled regarding how pathogens produce disease and survive in foods. For that, we have made several advances in DNA-based technologies that translate to a more sophisticated understanding of how bacterial pathogens work. So yes, genome sequencing brings us more tools to further characterize pathogens, but do not expect any other parts of food safety to be forgotten soon because of WGS.
In the last two decades, our advances in isolation, identification, and characterization of microbial pathogens — from human patients and food samples — have provided real revolutions in the time needed to detect outbreaks, or even foodborne illness cases that may indicate the appearance of an outbreak. Faster reaction times equate to fewer cases of illness and more contained outbreaks. But, controlling an outbreak requires not only the identification of the human pathogens, but also the connection to the contaminated food, as well as removing the contaminated food from the market. The overall networks in place to fulfill these steps have also improved, but traceability of foods continues to be a challenge, especially in small- and mid-size facilities. Some complex food products are made of a series of ingredients coming from different part of the world. Traceability of those products may never be perfect.