If you’ve been following food safety news for some time now, you undoubtedly know that fighting the mega harmful pathogen, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli—otherwise known as STEC—requires super smart, passionate, dedicated food safety warriors in the lab and in the field.
And that’s just who we’ve got featured in this Q & A with Dr. Rodney Moxley, Charles Bessey Professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and close partner of STOP Foodborne Illness.
Dig in to our dialogue below to learn about Dr. Moxley and the impressive work he’s done—and continues to do—to prevent STEC-related foodborne disease. Be sure to stick around until the end for an easy yet very valuable “homework assignment” he’d love for you to take on.
Q: Dr. Moxley, how did your career in food safety begin?
A: I’m a veterinarian, and early in my career I worked as a veterinary medical officer for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). I was motivated to enter a career in food safety because of its importance to the people of our nation and all over the world.
However, I found my interests were more in scientific discovery than regulation. So, I entered into a PhD program in pathology. After graduation, I took a tenure-track faculty position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) with my primary role being a veterinary diagnostic pathologist. In this position, I had a minor research appointment. During that time, I conducted a number of studies on the pathogenesis of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O157:H7 and non-O157 STEC that ultimately led to the work I do now.
After STEC became a major public health concern, I was moved into a research/teaching appointment and have continued in this role for the last 21 years. As a Professor at UNL, my research focus is still on STEC and other pathogenic types of E. coli, but it involves both microbiology and pathology. Currently, I teach the General Pathology course for the professional veterinary students at UNL.
Q: You’re Project Director of STEC CAP, which focuses on Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in the beef chain. Why was STEC CAP started and what does your role involve?
A: This is a Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) funded by a $25 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. CAP awards fund large-scale comprehensive projects involving multi-state and multi-institutional teams that work together to solve complex problems. So, in this case, it’s the reduction of the public health risk of STEC in beef.
This CAP was started because STEC is a serious and deadly cause of foodborne illness with a significant number of cases attributable to beef. Further, at the time of the “Request for Applications” for this grant, specific serogroups of non-O157 STEC had become recognized as significant causes of foodborne illness. In contrast to STEC O157:H7, methods for detection, diagnostic reagents, beef chain epidemiological data, and interventions for non-O157 STEC—both pre- and post-harvest—were largely lacking.
My role is Project Director (PD) of the STEC CAP and Team Leader for Objective 1 (development and validation of detection methods). As PD, I’m responsible for all aspects of the CAP, science-wise and administratively. On a typical day, you’d likely find me entrenched in any number of stimulating activities I thoroughly enjoy. I might be reviewing progress on our research and education/outreach efforts, corresponding with collaborators and laboratory staff, meeting with and teaching students, reviewing the literature, writing papers, or preparing/giving presentations at scientific meetings and lectures in courses. No matter what I’m doing, it’s exhilarating to make scientific discoveries and share the results with others knowing my work could potentially prevent someone from getting sick or prepare the next generation of scientists who could make a significant discovery.
Now, I certainly don’t work alone! Fortunately, I’ve also got excellent support from many other talented people. These include an outstanding Project Manager and Executive Management Team, along with 51 other scientists and educators and a large group of staff and students who do impressive work on the STEC CAP.
Q: STOP Foodborne Illness is a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Board of the STEC CAP. How does our involvement help you advance its mission?
A: The Stakeholder Advisory Board (SAB) of the STEC CAP includes several components. STOP, as a member representing consumers, plays a key role in a few of these. One is to help establish relevance and priority of STEC CAP-based research, education, and outreach programs. Another is to provide assessment and feedback on the impacts of STEC CAP-related activities and outputs in producing safe beef products. Third, STOP helps facilitate productive communications between the STEC CAP team and consumers. We find STOP’s involvement truly invaluable because the consumer’s voice is critical to success in our work.
Q: What’s one major, positive outcome you’ve accomplished through STEC CAP that’s helping prevent foodborne illness?
A: Although we could point to many, one outcome I’d like to highlight is from a set of studies done by several of my post-harvest research colleagues.
These studies focused on the degree of penetration of STEC bacteria into tenderized steaks and end-point cooking temperatures on mechanically tenderized non-intact steaks. The results of these studies filled key data gaps for determining the risk of blade-tenderized (2-fold) and brine-injected (4-fold) steaks compared to non-tenderized beef. Data generated by these STEC CAP scientists were used by federal regulatory agencies to: 1) update risk assessments; 2) declare non-O157 STEC an adulterant in non-intact beef; and 3) support rules for labeling beef products that have been tenderized and, therefore, rendered non-intact. These STEC CAP scientists further provided guidance to Canadian authorities for similar labeling and rule-making initiatives.
Q: On a personal level, what do you find most meaningful and rewarding about your work?
A: It’s knowing our work has a long-term goal to reduce the occurrence and public health risks stemming from STEC O157:H7 and non-O157 STEC in beef. Through prevention of STEC infection, consumers and their family members can ultimately avoid the horrific pain, suffering, hospitalization, and even death that tragically accompanies many foodborne illnesses.
Q: Right now, how can STOP readers help promote your work?
A: One important way is to contact your congressional representatives and voice your support for the STEC CAP project and other food safety research and educational/outreach programs. Explain to them why you think food safety research and education/outreach are important enough to fund with our hard-earned tax dollars. At the end of the day, these activities are absolutely VITAL for helping to save lives and lessen the physical, emotional, and financial burden of foodborne illness for people in our country.
Dr. Rodney Moxley is a Charles Bessey Professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dr. Moxley has published 82 refereed journal articles and nine book chapters, and is the Project Director for a USDA Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) with a long-term goal of reducing the occurrence and public health risks caused by Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli in beef. He and his wife, Jeannie, live in Lincoln, Nebraska and have two children and five grandchildren. In addition to spending time with family, Dr. Moxley enjoys caring for his yard, ministering to others in his parish, and seeing new places in our country and other parts of the world.
*Photo Credit: Photo by Craig Chandler / University of Nebraska Communications / Rodney Moxley, Veterinary Medicine Lab. East Campus. July 10, 2013.