Safeguarding the food we eat: Another role of SDSU’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab

Farm Forum

The next time you’re in a group of people, take a look around. If averages hold true, one person out of every six in that group got sick within the past year from a certain disease syndrome (maybe it was even you!). Could it be the flu? No. How about heart disease? Not quite. The cause of the syndrome responsible for illness in one person out of six sick every year is…the food we eat.

This isn’t about feeling queasy after a big Thanksgiving meal, or heartburn from that convenience store burrito. That statistic refers to illnesses due to foodborne germs. The nutrients contained in food are good for us, but they’re sometimes also good for bacteria to grow in. If those germs happen to be harmful for humans (Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, for example), human illness can result.

The one in six statistic might even be a conservative estimate. How often have you or a family member experienced a bout of stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that comes on fast but is gone after a day or two? While some of these cases can be blamed on true “stomach flu” (viral gastroenteritis due to norovirus), odds are higher that illness came from a germ in food.

There are many ways that foods can become contaminated with germs harmful to people. These germs can enter food at various points in the process – from the initial animal or plant source, through processing, to cooking and serving. SDSU Extension and other outlets do a great job outlining proper cooking and handling techniques that diminish the risk of foodborne illness in the home or at the potluck.

As mentioned, some foodborne germs can get carried along from the animal source. For example, some healthy cattle and pigs can carry germs such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter that can sometimes wind up on the carcass and in the meat during processing. For most of these germs, cooking readily wipes them out. Some others, such as Listeria, can be present in ready-to-eat foods like lunchmeat that don’t require another cooking step, however.

The people involved in making our food take product safety extremely seriously. Because the raw product has a chance to harbor some illness-related germs, they go to great lengths to make sure their processing equipment is immaculate and not a potential source of contamination. The large companies spend a lot of time, money, and people on monitoring their processes to ensure safe food products.

But what if you’re not a big food company? What if you’re a small local locker plant providing products for your community? Your commitment to safety and quality is no less that of the big players, yet having your own laboratory and testing scheme isn’t practical.

Here’s where the Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Lab at SDSU comes in. The ADRDL has a specific lab dedicated to food safety testing for smaller family businesses like the local locker plant. It’s a very natural fit. Most foodborne germs are very similar to those the lab routinely diagnoses in cases of animal disease. They already possess the people, equipment, and most importantly the knowledge to rapidly and accurately detect these germs in food.

The ADRDL serves as the testing agency for South Dakota’s state meat inspection program. On any given day, the food safety lab receives sausage, lunch meat, beef sticks, and similar products from businesses across the state for foodborne pathogen testing. Samples taken from tables, meat saws, and knives are also submitted to SDSU so the businesses can ensure their sanitation processes are working. What’s more, this level of expertise is recognized by two other states (North Dakota and Vermont) that use SDSU’s food safety lab for their inspection programs rather than those in their own state.

The food safety lab at SDSU’s ADRDL is another great demonstration of how the lab’s knowledge and skills benefits everyone in South Dakota (and past its borders) beyond their expert work in detecting animal diseases. Making sure this lab – and the ADRDL as a whole – has up-to-date facilities and equipment will help ensure that this vital function can continue for generations to come.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.