CLEMSON — Clemson University has received the first year of funding of a five-year $2.43 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to study human noroviruses — the most common cause of food-borne disease, responsible for more than five million cases in the United States every year.

Clemson is part of the USDA-NIFA Food Virology Collaborative consisting of more than 30 collaborators from academia, industry and government.  The total USDA award is $24.8 million to be shared by the collaborating institutions. North Carolina State University is the lead institution for the collaborative.

The team will work to increase understanding of the viruses; educate producers, processors and food handlers on safe handling and preparation of food; and develop control and management strategies to reduce food contamination before and after harvesting.

Angela Fraser, a professor in the department of food, nutrition and packaging sciences, will lead the extension and outreach activities. Fraser and her colleagues will be targeting the retail/food-service industries where infected food handlers are a common source of most cases of human noroviruses.

Noroviruses spread from person to person through contaminated food or water and by touching contaminated surfaces. Molluscan shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels; fresh produce; and foods that are extensively handled just prior to consumption are at greatest risk for contamination.

The USDA-NIFA Food Virology Collaborative project has six core objectives:

  • Develop improved methods of studying human noroviruses and their role in food-borne illnesses.
  • Develop and validate rapid and practical methods to detect human noroviruses.
  • Collect and analyze data on viral food-borne illnesses — including how they are transmitted — and provide risk and cost analyses.
  • Improve understanding of how human noroviruses behave in the food-safety chain to develop scientifically justifiable control measures.
  • Develop online courses and curricula for food safety and health professionals and food-service workers, and provide information to fresh produce and shellfish producers and processors on the risks, management and control of food-borne viruses.
  • Develop a public literature database, build virus research capabilities in state public health laboratories, and develop graduate-level curricula to educate masters and doctoral students trained in food virology.

Along with North Carolina State and Clemson, the core team includes scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, Emory University, Research Triangle Institute, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Georgia, N.C. A&T State University, N.C. Central University and the Institute for Food Safety and Health at Illinois Institute of Technology. Other key collaborators are from the University of Delaware, the Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, the U.S. FDA and USDA Agricultural Research Service, Arizona State University, New Mexico State University, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Rutgers University. Various industrial and government stakeholders will serve the collaborative in advisory capacity.