Safeguarding our food from farm to fork

Chandra Madramootoo, Jayne Munro, Heather Munroe-Blum
(From left to right): Dean Chandra Madramootoo, Jayne Munro, the late Dr. Ian C. Munro, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum, and Vice-Principal (Development and Alumni Relations) Marc Weinstein.

Picture it: you eat something and, as it goes down, it seems ‘a little off.’ Later on you feel – or maybe you are – sick. By the next day you’re over it and soon forget about it.

We all have that experience under our belt. Yet although most food-borne illnesses go officially undetected, with an estimated cost to the Canadian economy of $12 to $14 billion per year, they are no trivial problem. Beyond money, outbreaks of E. coli and listeriosis originating in food processing plants garner headlines because they lead to deaths – avoidable deaths.

To save lives and costly recalls, the food industry needs faster techniques to detect food spoilage than we have now – and that’s precisely the expertise of Dr. Lawrence Goodridge, who will serve as McGill’s first Ian and Jayne Munro Chair in Food Safety, created thanks to the generous $1.5-million gift from the late Dr. Ian Munro, BSc(Agr)’62, MSc’67. An investment of $500,000 from the University and a further $1 million still to be raised will ensure the Chair is endowed in perpetuity.

Set to start at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in the summer of 2013, Goodridge primarily researches the use of bacteriophages (“phages”) to study and solve food-production problems. Only a decade after earning his PhD, the young researcher has already been awarded two patents and one provisional patent for his research related to rapid detection of foodborne pathogens.

As executive vice-president and senior scientific consultant of Cantox Health Sciences International in Mississauga, Dr. Munro, who passed away in 2011, devoted his career to identifying and controlling toxic constituents in food. Upon presenting the gift, Dr. Munro said, “There is so much horsepower here at McGill. Nowhere else in Canada is there a program of this quality and magnitude” at which to establish the Chair.

“We want to make this a prominent centre for food safety in Canada,” explains Professor Varoujan Yaylayan, Chair of the Department of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry. To do so, “We need a core of researchers in chemistry, bio-chemistry, food processing and micro-biology.” The Department lacked only the microbiology component – until now.

“Food safety will become more and more important, because of larger scale production,” continues Yaylayan. That’s why the Department opened a three-semester non-thesis Master’s program in September, 2012 aimed at sharpening the skills of industry professionals. The program has welcomed excellent applicants, and Goodridge will be a magnet for other renowned experts to join the Faculty. It’s all part of the Department’s effort to establish what Yaylayan feels is essential to understanding the field properly: “a holistic view, to cover food safety from farm to fork.”