KENYA – Meru University of Science and Technology and Meru County have signed a memorandum of understanding with representatives from Penn State to tackle food safety and public health issues with a focus on meat and milk products.

The partnership will also include the Technical University of Denmark.

According to Erika Ganda, Assistant Professor of Food Animal Microbiomes, foodborne diseases are responsible for a significant proportion of illness and death worldwide, with pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli, norovirus, and Campylobacter responsible for many of them.

Additionally, Ganda said, an increase in human-animal interactions can boost the risk of infectious diseases spreading from animals to humans, making it vital to evaluate to what extent these interactions are causing disease in Meru.

“Foodborne pathogens likely cause considerable disease in Meru County, but there is limited understanding of specific microbial causes, treatment outcomes, and health care costs. 

“As an agricultural community bordered by areas teeming with wildlife, zoonotic diseases of animal origin are also an important consideration, particularly in the context of climate change,” he said.

Edward Dudley, Director of Penn State’s E. coli Reference Center and Professor of Food Science, said the partnership will focus on working with collaborators in Kenya to provide solutions to important issues they have identified, including food safety and public health problems that easily could affect the rest of the world.

“What’s particularly exciting about this partnership is that the foundational research ideas were conceived by members of Meru University.

“These three topics align extremely well with the strengths and interests of faculty in the College of Agricultural Sciences here at Penn State,” he said.

He stated that zoonotic illnesses in Meru, food quality and safety of meat and milk products, and foodborne pathogens, particularly those found in meat and milk products, are the three key research subjects.

Researchers will work together to investigate the prevalence and risk factors for infections related to eating meat and dairy products in Meru, as well as the most typical foods linked to foodborne illnesses and potential sources of contamination of milk and meat.

Assessing the food quality and food safety of milk products in Meru is the third emphasis of the collaboration, according to Associate Research Professor Kerry Kaylegian.

Researchers will examine the distribution of various pathogen types detected in milk and meat products as well as the safety precautions used by farmers, handlers, and merchants in Meru with reference to milk and meat products.

Also, they will look into what makes microorganisms identified in these items more resistant to antibiotics.

“I have provided technical support on dairy food manufacturing and food safety to the dairy industry domestically and internationally. 

“I’ve worked on similar projects in Nepal and Ethiopia and am looking forward to seeing how I can apply these skills to what is needed by the Kenya dairy foods industry,” Kaylegian said.

According to Ganda, they are also collaborating with Penn State Associate Professor of International Affairs Elizabeth Ransom to look into the societal implications of antibiotic resistance both domestically and abroad.

Dudley claims that the collaboration kicked off two years ago, while Nkuchia M’ikanatha, an affiliate faculty member in the Penn State Department of Food Science, was visiting his home in Kenya.

M’ikanatha claimed he had numerous interactions with Meru inhabitants who asked for his assistance in determining whether mysterious local illnesses were related to local cuisine.

A Meru farmer made a similar request at the same time, wondering if improper management of food after rotting and a lack of distribution strategies were to blame for the region’s high food insecurity.

Besides encouraging new research, the cooperation, according to Dudley, will also include a mentorship component, with Penn State faculty offering training and professional development for the faculty in Meru.

“Two examples already underway is that one of our collaborators is designing a workshop about writing abstracts for scientific meetings. 

“I’m also looking forward to research collaborations in food safety and helping Meru University faculty increase their output of peer-reviewed papers and abstract presentations,” he said.

Ganda said she used the trip to Kenya for the MOU signing ceremony as an opportunity to start making a difference in the Meru community by offering a two-day training on molecular tools for disease detection from DNA extraction through sequencing.

“When I saw the Meru initiative developing, I realized it would be beneficial to have something concrete come out of it beyond the MOU.

“We were able to coordinate with colleagues at Meru University and the dairy farmer community to collect environmental samples and administer surveys on management practices. I then worked with the Meru team and taught them how to process the samples. This will be the first key outcome of this budding collaboration,” Ganda said.

Furthermore, Penn State students will work with students from the Kenyan university; according to M’ikanatha, this collaboration will provide Penn State students access to important perspectives they might not otherwise have had.

“When two students from different continents have the chance to collaborate, they bring different viewpoints and experiences to the table.

“This makes their training and education so much more robust and oftentimes leads to a solution they normally wouldn’t arrive at otherwise,” he said.

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