K-State researchers to work on team targeting foodborne illness in Cambodia

Vegetables have been linked to many foodborne outbreaks worldwide, Carla Schwan, graduate student in food science and project coordinator on the grant project, said. (Archive Photo by Gabriela Faraone | Collegian Media Group)

Kansas State researchers received a $760,000 grant from the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety to help protect against foodborne diseases and increase food safety awareness in Cambodia.

The team, composed of researchers from K-State, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University and Cambodia, will focus on the vegetable chain in Cambodia to reduce the prevalence of foodborne pathogens.

Jessie Vipham, assistant professor in animal sciences and industry and principal investigator on the grant, sees the project as an opportunity to expand access to safe food for all.

“From my personal perspective, I view food safety and the right to have safe food as a basic human right,” Vipham said. “When you think about a lot of the diseases that are associated with foodborne disease, they’re largely preventable and we have a lot of the technology and science and understanding to prevent foodborne disease.”

The project will last three and a half years and be a team effort between the U.S. and Cambodian researchers.

“This is really a collective research project that is meant to be country led and focus on questions that Cambodians thought were important,” Vipham said. “We’ve been given an opportunity to collaborate and work in a team atmosphere on a project that will develop food safety systems for Cambodia with Cambodia as major project partners.”

Valentina Trinetta, assistant professor in food safety and microbiology and researcher on the grant, said increasing knowledge about food safety will help protect Cambodians from the harmful diseases.

“Food safety in developing countries is very much linked to food insecurity, so improving the education in those countries might help to educate and save a lot of children that are mainly affected by food insecurity,” Trinetta said. “That will help them not to be developing anymore, but to advance faster.”

Carla Schwan, graduate student in food science and project coordinator on the grant, experienced foodborne illness first-hand in Brazil when she was 12.

“I got an E. coli infection and I was in the hospital for more than a month,” Schwan said. “I almost died because of it.”

After her internship at a food microbiology lab, she further realized the severity of foodborne disease.

“I recognized that this is an important field that I like and I can make a difference because I would hate to keep seeing children die from it,” Schwan said. “Since I come from Brazil, we do have a lot of issues with food safety. In the U.S., it’s way more advanced. I had the opportunity to go to Cambodia and I saw similar problems to what I saw in Brazil were happening in Cambodia.”

The Cambodian diet is mainly raw vegetables and fish, Schwan said, and there are currently not many interventions to kill bacteria in the food.

“Vegetables have been linked to many foodborne outbreaks worldwide, so those are some things we consider when we propose this, but the overall goal is to reduce contamination of those vegetables produced and sold in those markets in Cambodia,” Schwan said.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted travel to Cambodia, the team will continue to work with the Cambodian researchers from across the world to improve food safety.

“We hope the travel restriction will be released soon so we can travel, but if we are not able to travel, we have such a strong partnership that we are convinced are going to be successful anyways,” Trinetta said.