Scientist protects food supply against tiny big threats
COLUMBIA — Radhika Kakani devotes her career to detecting the tiniest evidence of disease and contamination. As head of the veterinary microbiology section of Clemson University Livestock-Poultry Health (LPH), Kakani is a sleuth in the state agency’s ongoing battle to investigate disease and protect both animal and human health.
“We perform diagnostic testing to detect a variety of animal pathogens,” said Kakani, whose lab is a member of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network and an integral part of the national disease surveillance system. “We also support the mission of S.C. Meat and Poultry Inspection Department by testing meat and meat products for food-borne pathogens before it goes to market to make sure it’s safe — tests of E. coli, listeria, salmonella — both in raw meat and fully cooked food products.”
The daughter of a poultry farmer, Kakani grew up on the farm and decided early to pursue a career in the science of agriculture. She earned her bachelor of veterinary science and animal husbandry degrees in her native India, followed by a Ph.D. in poultry science at Texas A&M University.
Her lab in the LPH Veterinary Diagnostic Center is on the very front line in the fight against devastating diseases like Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).
“We support the National Poultry Improvement Program and we do a lot of surveillance testing,” she said. “Before birds go to slaughter or are transfered out of state we have to conduct tests to certify them disease-free.”
Poultry farms annually generate more than $12 billion in South Carolina — more than a quarter of the total economic impact of the state’s agribusinesses — making the HPAI threat a significant one. More than 800 commercial poultry farms with more than 3,350 active houses are routinely monitored in the Palmetto State and LPH operates a voluntary, cooperative HPAI control plan that includes education, monitoring, reporting and outbreak response.
But Kakani’s work extends well beyond birds. Her lab conducts tests on all types of farm animals.
“We test many different kinds of samples collected by our necropsy floor and sent to the diagnostic lab — equine, bovine, goats,” she said. “Also, in cases where federal regulations place restrictions on the movement of horses or poultry, we do the testing that allows veterinarians to certify them for transportation.”
Samples that reach the LPH Diagnostic Center allow them to assist veterinarians, the animal industry and animal owners.
“We receive samples from within LPH, from veterinarian submissions, animal-owner submissions: farmers, equine owners,” she said, noting that the threat of disease outbreaks requires them to be prepared for unusually high volumes of testing. “We expect the sample volume to be more in the event of an outbreak. We always keep ourselves prepared to process that large sample volume. For avian flu we always have supplies on hand to run 1,000 samples, if necessary.”
It’s a long way from her family’s farm in India to her Columbia-based lab, but her role could not suit her better, she said.
“It’s exciting for me. I’ve worked in other areas where, although you knew you were making a difference, the results took time to see. Here, every day we are making a difference,” Kakani said. “You are protecting animal health and in return you are protecting public health. With the food microtesting you are keeping the food safe. It’s an extremely satisfying profession.”