Spotlight: Scientist

Elaine Berry

Elaine Berry - Elaine Berry, Ph.D.

Elaine Berry, Ph.D.

Research Microbiologist

USDA-ARS / U.S. Meat Animal Research Center

B.S., Food Science and Technology, University of Nebraska
M.S., Food Science and Technology, University of Nebraska
Ph.D., Food Science and Microbiology, North Carolina State University

Originally from Bryan-College Station, Texas, Dr. Elaine Berry attended the University of Nebraska. During this time Dr. Berry knew she had an interest in the field of agriculture, but was unsure of her emphasis. Fortunately she realized that food science was an innovative field, something she wanted to be a part of. As a student she researched foodborne pathogens. The experience of working with professors and researchers in this field ignited her interest in research. Dr. Berry now works for the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), examining the reduction of pathogen transmission from livestock manure to food, water, and the environment. CPS student staffer Connie Arana spoke with Dr. Berry about her career path and newly funded research project.

What interested you in food science?
I had already started college, I was undeclared, but I knew I wanted to study agriculture. I took a class where I could visit the different departments. Frankly, I didn’t know the discipline of food science existed, but food was something that I could relate to. As a student, I got a job in one of the laboratories where they worked with foodborne pathogens and I loved it. I loved the biology of it and the importance of the topic.

What influenced you to work for the government in food safety?
Specifically, the opportunity to work with the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA. While in school I was able to interact with professionals who were working in the field, including some who were scientists with USDA-ARS. What really influenced me to work with this agency is that we work on problems that are major research priorities for our country and the world. ARS scientists have the opportunity to not only manage the laboratory, but are directly involved in the day-to-day conducting of the research. I enjoy that “hands on” aspect.

How did you learn about CPS?
My research at ARS has the overall objective of reducing pathogen transmission from animal manure to human food and water supplies. It was a new research focus at our research center. I was the first person assigned to the job, so I got to determine the specific objectives of the project and how we moved forward. An important part of that process was identifying who would benefit from this research. In identifying my “customers” I identified the Center for Produce Safety and the produce industry as being important stakeholders for the results of this particular research.

CPS recently funded “Escherichia coli in bioaerosols from cattle production on areas: evaluation of proximity and airborne transport on leafy green crop contamination.”  Can you go over the project objectives?  Any updates?
The overall objective of the CPS project is to look at E. coli O157:H7 transport from cattle production environments to leafy green produce crops. The produce industry has important questionsabout the factors that affect the pre-harvest food safety of their product. There are a lot of questions on how these pathogens land on the produce in the environment. Produce and cattle production exist in close proximity in many areas. E. coli O157:H7 either directly or indirectly comes usually from animals. This project evaluates the proximity of the produce crop to a cattle production facility. What is the risk for the produce crop? We are looking at the proximity in terms of the possibility of transport of airborne E. coli O157:H7 to a crop. We are examining this by collecting samples of spinach and collecting air samples, both at different distances from a cattle feedlot. We are also trapping live flies in the spinach crop and testing them, to get an idea of what risk there is for flies to carry E. coli O157:H7 to the spinach crop. Produce growers need specific information about the appropriate set back distances from a cattle production facility to grow a leafy green crop to reduce the risk of contamination of that crop. No updates yet--we are right in the middle of the first season of our research, madly collecting data, and we have not had the opportunity to fully analyze it yet.

What do you think the industry will gain from your research?
I think the industry will gain a new understanding of the potential risk for the location of their produce crop in relation to the cattle production area. More specifically, I think the industry will gain information about what appropriate setback distances are for their produce crop.

Where do you see the food safety industry 5 years down the road?  Why?
Every year there seems to be a doubling of the speed in which technology advances our scientific ability to examine the microbial ecology of the agricultural environment, not just cattle production, but also produce production, and a variety of other things that microbiology influences. I think with the advances in the sequencing technology and the other advances making the study of microbial ecology of the environment less costly, we can do more of it. We will learn more about agricultural environments and that is going to teach us more about how pathogens thrive, survive and persist in those environments. I think this will provide us better information on ways we can influence in a negative fashion the persistence of these pathogens in agricultural production environments and that is going to have the benefit of reducing the risk of transmission of foodborne pathogens.

What about the collaboration aspect of your research?
The collaborators are an important part of this project because they influenced my decision to go ahead and write a research proposal to submit to the Center for Produce Safety. One of my collaborators is Pat Millner. Many years ago we were collaborating on a project, and when she visited our facility we talked about the risk of bioaerosol transport of pathogens. She recognized that this ARS facility is well set up to do this type of experiment, and ultimately that is happening now. A couple years later I had an opportunity to meet another collaborator, Trevor Suslow, from the University of California, Davis. I had a conversation with him which led me to understand what a critical research priority it was to determine if bioaerosol transport of pathogens does occur, how far those pathogens can be transported, and what issues he had in trying to conduct this research in produce production environments. That was a year or two before the CPS request for proposals (RFP) came out in the spring of 2010. The study had already started to form in my mind, and the CPS RFP specifically identified the need for this research. Pat Millner was an obvious collaborator; Trevor Suslow was an obvious collaborator. There are other collaborators on this project who have experience in flies and their ability to carry and spread of foodborne pathogens. The study is a large, complex, and labor intensive project, so you can’t make real progress without teamwork and combining expertise and experience in the different aspects of the research. Thus, these collaborations are a key part of the success of this project.

What does a normal day consist of?
Every day is really different. One aspect of working for the Agricultural Research Service that was really attractive for me was the opportunity to be directly involved in the day to day science. In my research we do a lot of field work, since we work in the area of food safety in red meat animal production and manure management. We do many large scale projects that provide real life data, in order to find real life solutions to food safety problems, so a typical day might start with field work and end in the lab.

Please describe one or more of your career highlights.
Actually one of my career highlights was hearing that my Center for Produce Safety proposal had been awarded. As I said before, I had identified CPS as one of my customers and it was very thrilling to know that these customers found that our research and ideas were meeting their expectations, in terms of addressing their questions and problems. In addition, this CPS project is a new and different research area at the center, and doing it has been a great charge.