Apr 25, 2013
In this era of enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), or bird flu, knowledge about pathogens that can be transmitted from animals to people is becoming increasingly important. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of people become ill each year with infections transmitted by animals. Researchers at Freie Universität are now working on behalf of the United Nations to help limit the risk of these kinds of global infectious diseases.
The researchers support the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a reference center for matters concerning animal health and food hygiene – especially in developing countries and emerging markets. When a parcel arrives at the Institute of Meat Technology and Hygiene at Freie Universität, in Dahlem, the box may contain hazardous goods: germs collected in Germany, elsewhere in Europe, or from other parts of the world, tightly sealed and imported with the most stringent safety precautions possible. These are human pathogens, intended for study by researchers at the institute’s special labs – germs that can also pose a risk to people.
Professor Reinhard Fries, the head of the Institute, is waiting for pathogens to arrive from Ethiopia. This time, it’s a certain type of Salmonella bacteria that sickens hundreds of thousands of people around the world each year. Salmonella bacteria are among the zoonotic pathogens that are at the heart of all activity at the Institute of Meat Technology and Hygiene. These germs can pass from animals to people, causing severe infectious diseases known as zoonoses.
Fries is especially interested in how the pathogens are transmitted. He wants to find out where exactly in the food chain the infections occur. In today’s era of global trade, this kind of research is absolutely vital, since the volume of food imported from other countries has skyrocketed in recent years. Visit the supermarket today and you may buy fish from Japan, bean sprouts from Thailand, and coconuts from Africa. Increased globalization also heightens the risk of foodborne illness.
“In terms of food hygiene, we face huge challenges on the global level,” Fries says. International trade, he points out, helps to spread previously unknown germs while also making it more difficult to ensure that uniform hygiene standards are complied with – and that compliance is monitored. The countries in question often lack the infrastructure needed for these activities. “The more we know about zoonosis-causing pathogens, the better we will be able to respond in the worst case. That would help prevent many cases of illness and many deaths.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is based in Rome, is now embarking on plans to utilize the expertise of researchers at Freie Universität to limit the risk posed by zoonoses. An alliance of four institutions within the Department of Veterinary Medicine has been designated a reference center for veterinary public health by the UN. Alongside the Institute of Meat Technology and Hygiene, the alliance also includes the Institute of Food Hygiene, the Institute of Animal Welfare and Behavior, and the International Animal Health division. The alliance brings together all of the teaching and continuing education activities at Freie Universität in the field of veterinary public health.
The researchers at the institutions involved have been conducting field research nearly all over the world for years. They travel to countries such as Ethiopia, Nepal, and Sudan to work with local government agencies to review agricultural conditions and offer hints for potential improvements. What are the local animal husbandry practices? What kinds of materials are used as feed? What germs do the animals carry? How is the water quality? What about slaughtering conditions? Where do the animals come from, and where do they go?
The researchers’ goal is to optimize food hygiene, thereby preventing or at least limiting the possible transmission of animal pathogens to people. “Our research bridges the gap between humans and animals,” Fries says. While the experts in Dahlem focus on prevention during food production, a second reference center distinguished by the FAO in Germany – the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health (Friedrich Löffler Institute), located on the island of Riems – is dedicated to fighting animal epidemics.
The researchers at Freie Universität have already started work on a number of studies. Among other things, they are studying how animal parasites or pathogens get into the human body, where an infection can have much more severe consequences than in an animal. Take Nepal, for example, where many pigs are infested with disease-causing parasites. While the disease does not affect the animals themselves, the parasites can cause serious infections in people.
The veterinary researchers plan to advise government agencies in emerging markets and developing countries in particular and to support these agencies during lab tests. Fries plans to develop inspection procedures for livestock in poor and rural areas, so that over the longer term people there can maintain better hygiene. In those areas, the researchers from Berlin will also offer training sessions for groups such as farmers and veterinarians. If there is a lack of labs or microscopes in these countries, the pathogens can be sent to Berlin for examination. In the long range, however, the main goal is to develop local infrastructure, Fries says, “Since that’s the only thing that will really have any benefit.”