In 2011, a pathogen on cantaloupe from Jensen Farms was implicated in 147 illnesses, 33 deaths, and one miscarriage. Another outbreak in 2015- this time in Blue Bell Creameries products- caused three deaths, 10 hospitalizations, and forced the company to recall all of its products from the market, including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, and frozen snacks.
The pathological culprit for both outbreaks was eventually determined to be Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that causes the life-threatening infection Listeriosis when contaminated food is consumed. It is one of the leading causes of death from foodborne illness.
Lauren Hudson, a doctoral student in the Department of Food Science and Technology, researches this foodborne bacterial pathogen, to which immunocompromised populations like pregnant women, newborns, and the elderly are especially susceptible.
A naturally occurring bacterium in the environment, L. monocytogenes can become established in food processing and food handling facilities, including those that have strict cleaning and sanitation programs.
Past research has shown that, once established on food contact and nonfood contact surfaces in facilities, it can be difficult to eliminate.
Hudson’s research – funded through the Center for Food Safety, and Georgia Agricultural Experiment Station, and the USDA National Needs Graduate Fellowship Program – uses whole genome sequencing and genetic analysis to determine why some strains of L. monocytogenes survive and persist in food processing environments.
So far, Hudson has sequenced the genomes in 170 L. monocytogenes strains isolated from poultry processing plants.
“Under the direction of my major professor, Dr. Mark Harrison, I am currently assembling and annotating the genomes for further analysis,” she explains.
Hudson hopes her research will help identify the genetic determinants that allow some strains of L. monocytogenes to survive and persist in food processing environments, while other strains are transient in the same environments.
“We are hoping that the results we obtain from this study will give insight to tools that can be used to decrease L. Monocytogenes persistence in food processing environments (like sanitizer formulations), which, in turn, will lower the chance for it to contaminate food products and cause foodborne illness.”
After graduation, Hudson plans to pursue an academic or government post-doctoral position, followed by a position in academia where she can apply the skills learned from earning UGA’s Interdisciplinary Certificate in University Teaching.
“Ultimately, I want to go into academia to continue my research in food safety as well as to teach and mentor both undergraduate and graduate students.”