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Solving food poisoning investigations with DNA

November 2017

Solving food poisoning investigations with DNA – Transcript/Captions

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency corporate introduction plays. It shows images that represent the work of the Agency including a petri dish, strawberries, a growing plant, a chicken and a maple leaf.

Text: CFIA – Safeguarding with Science

An animation plays showing particles forming a DNA helix that is rotating on itself.

Text: Solving food poisoning investigation with DNA

A women's hand is placing lettuce on a shelf at the grocery store.

Text: One in eight people – 4 million Canadians – get sick each year from contaminated food. Includes both estimate for 30 food borne pathogens and unknown causes of acute gastrointestinal illness.

A young scientist is sitting in a laboratory writing something down.

Text: CFIA is constantly working to prevent food-borne illnesses in Canada, focusing on one mission-critical tool: Science

A man is sitting at his desk reading a scientific text book

My name is Burton Blais. I'm the head of research and development at the Ottawa laboratory Carling of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Burton Blais is sitting in a laboratory being interviewed

So our laboratory provides research and development support to our testing labs and our main area focus is in the area of detecting and identifying the presence of pathogenic micro-organisms in foods.

Apples are moving on a conveyor belt in a factory setting

Text: Burton's team develops scientific techniques to identify potentially dangerous contaminants in food products more rapidly.

Burton Blais is sitting in a laboratory being interviewed

Well what's been really interesting here is that I've actually seen some of the techniques that were developed in our lab be implemented in supporting food-borne illness events that are occurring across the border. They'd had an outbreak, an actual outbreak. People were actually sick in the US so they were doing a big investigation and normally when that happens, we'll start testing the product here to make sure that we're not importing the problem. That's the impact right there is that this, you know, fairly major product brand that was clearly causing illness in the state. It was coming into Canada and we wanted to make sure that what we're importing wasn't contaminated. We were able to do some very very quick testing and determine that yep, it's contaminated too, so that's it. We're not selling this to Canadians or not allow Canadian consumers to be exposed to this.

A scientist is using a pipette to transfer liquid samples in a tubes

Text: The innovative technology used during the investigation was so effective that the US Center for Disease Control contacted the CFIA to ask about the technology. The genomic based test developed by Burton's team identified Listeria in less than four days - half the normal testing time.

Burton Blais is sitting in a laboratory being interviewed

Genomics is relatively new science in which we seek to understand the genetic blueprint of microorganisms.

A 3D animation plays showing a house building from a blueprints plan

If you use the analogy of a house: it would be like having the blueprints and the scantling's for a particular house. So you would not only of course see the exterior manifestation of that house but you would also see the detail floor plan and the materials that went into its constructions and perhaps even details of its engineering properties.

Burton Blais is sitting in a laboratory being interviewed

And so genomics basically gives us that kind of very highly detailed perspective of microorganisms. In a food borne illness outbreak investigation scenario, genomic techniques have proven to provide great advantages. We now have access to technology that enables us to very rapidly and accurately determine the entire DNA sequence of microorganism like an E. coli or salmonella bacteria.

strong>A scientist uses a pipette to transfer liquid into a test tube

Text: The DNA of over 4000 food bacteria samples have been sequenced at the Ottawa Laboratory Carling.

Getting out a high resolution DNA fingerprint you can actually determine whether or not a contamination event is of a sporadic nature or whether it's of a more persistent nature, a more long-term chronic contamination of a food manufacturing environment.

Video clips show food on production lines in different food factories

And knowing this can make a big big difference in terms of what the appropriate risk mitigation protocols are that should be applied to deal with the problem.

Text: Genomics provides us with a tool to identify the culprit in a food contamination investigation. Older testing techniques can tell us things like what type of food-borne illness is present, similar to a detective being given information like a physical description of a suspect. Using genomic testing is like gathering a fingerprint at a crime scene to identify the exact culprit: it enables us to link a specific type of bacteria from a manufacturing site to the piece of food that is making somebody sick. This helps us to quickly understand how, where and when contamination occurs and how it can be prevented from happening again.

Burton Blais is sitting in a laboratory being interviewed

I find it really gratifying to to be able to see the kind of impact that the work we're doing is having to solve actual problems and to see that we're actually preventing illness in Canada because of some of the tools that we've developed.

Burton Blais is sitting in a laboratory being interviewed

There are a number of different areas where genomics will help us to do our job as food inspectors a whole lot better. One of them is being able to have a better understanding of why some organisms are more pathogenic or more dangerous to human health than others.

Scenes of different scientists working in a laboratory

And so that will help us to really refine our inspection activity so that they're targeted towards those scenarios that present a higher risk to the public and I think that ultimately that will improve the effectiveness of our food inspection approaches.

A scientists hand closes a sample tube, she then picks it up and leaves the frame.

Text: Learn more about science at CFIA. Visit

Canada wordmark. Copyright Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada (Canadian Food Inspection Agency), 2017.

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