Spotlight: Scientist

Michele Jay-Russell

Michele Jay-Russell - Michele Jay-Russell Ph.D.

Michele Jay-Russell Ph.D.

Food Safety & Security Specialist

University of California, Davis

B.S., Veterinary Science, University of California, Davis
MPVM, University of California, Davis
DVM, University of California, Davis
Ph.D., Microbiology, University of California, Davis

Dr. Michele Jay-Russell's interest in public health and food safety grew while she attended the University of California, Davis. Her early experiences working for the California Department of Public Health examining rodent borne diseases, including plague and hantavirus, propelled her interest in disease surveillance and outbreak investigation. Now Dr. Jay-Russell is a program manager for the Western Center for Food Safety (WCFS) at UC Davis, where she pursues her interest in foodborne pathogens. CPS staffer Connie Arana spoke with Dr. Jay-Russell about her career path and her current research at CPS.

What influenced you to work in food safety?
I worked in private practice my first year out of vet school and then I was accepted into the California Epidemiologic Investigation Service (CAL EIS), a residency program. In 1993 I was assigned to the veterinary public health section in Sacramento and my first investigation involved an outbreak of E.coli:O15H7 linked to home-cooked ground beef. This piqued my interest in food safety. Subsequent to the residency program, I worked on numerous other foodborne outbreak investigations as an epidemiologist at the California Department of Public Health and the Sacramento Department of Health and Human Services.  In 2008 I joined the university to pursue a career in food safety research.

CPS has funded “Evaluation of amphibians and reptiles as potential reservoirs of foodborne pathogens and risk reduction to protect fresh produce and the environment.”  What are the project objectives?  Any updates?
Our main objective in this 12 month project is to fill a knowledge gap to determine if wild-caught amphibians are reservoirs for foodborne pathogens, including E. coli O157 and Salmonella. The study is collaboration between WCFS and the USDA ARS Western Regional Research Center.  This project started in the Central Coast examining farm ponds and wetland areas near leafy green produce fields. We also looked at other produce commodities such as berries and orchards, but mostly leafy green produce fields. We trapped and examined common species of frogs, newts, salamanders, toads, lizards and snakes. Along with the animals, we collected a paired water sample to test water quality, and collected ecologic data on each sample.  The second objective of the study is to look at environmental factors and farm production practices that may influence pathogen prevalence. We have enrolled both conventional and organic farms in the study.  We are looking to see if any of these landscape features or management practices are risk factors for carriage of Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7. Right now we are in the process of analyzing the data and confirming the isolates. We collected over 500 samples on the Central Coast.  We also have a grant from the US Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (FDA/CFSAN) to conduct a sister study in irrigation ponds in southeastern Georgia. With that grant we set up a subcontract with the University of Georgia and started a parallel study of amphibians and reptiles in the Suwannee River watershed. Dr. George Vellidis took the lead on that project and is now a collaborator. We will compare results from Georgia to what we found in California.

What do you think the industry will gain from your research project?
There is no published information on whether common species such as frogs and snakes, which may intrude into produce fields or live in irrigation reservoirs, carry these bacteria. We know that pet frogs and snakes and lizards have caused a number of human outbreaks of Salmonella, but those animals may be under stress and in crowded conditions when kept as pets. We wanted to see if wild reptiles carry the bacteria. This information is helpful as everyone is trying to put together a risk-based approach to pre-harvest food safety.  Also if we find there are other factors, such as water quality, affecting the prevalence of the bacteria, this may have implications for prevention efforts. We have a lot of collaboration with the conservation community on this project and on the concept of co-management. We hope to get good data out of this to minimize those conflicts through a better understanding about how these bacteria occur in the central coast and southeastern Georgia produce growing environments. This is a big question that may require more study, but this project is a great starting point.

Where do you see food safety five years down the road?  Why?
It will be interesting to see the impact of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that was passed this year. It is the biggest change in food safety regulations within the FDA since passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938. The FDA will have more influence on farm practices, farm investigations, and regulations.  In addition, they are promulgating the Produce Safety Rule. The focus now is on preventative controls. In five years, people are going to see how these regulations worked out: whether there are fewer outbreaks, how it influenced produce, egg, dairy and other foods that the FDA regulates.  We will probably continue to see emerging pathogens, but we are going to have improved technologies to prevent these pathogens. I think we will continue to see more use of sequencing and genetic analysis to track strains of pathogens in the food system.            

What was it like presenting at the CPS Symposium this past June?
I had a poster on the Evaluation of amphibians and reptiles as potential reservoirs of foodborne pathogens and risk reduction to protect fresh produce and the environment, and I had the first rapid response project awarded by CPS, which is what I presented as part of a panel discussion. The rapid response project was a 6 month project in Arizona and Mexico, and it looked at dogs and coyotes as possible reservoirs of shiga toxin-producing E. coli and Salmonella. The final report is posted on the CPS website.   

What are key factors influencing this field of inquiry?
A major focus of many of my projects is the interface between animals, agriculture, wildlife and produce production. I have a new CPS-funded project with Linda Harris looking at tree nuts and dairy operations when they are adjacent to one another. We are looking at risk factors that could be mitigated in terms of surrounding land use.  I have served on various scientific expert committees for produce industry groups to address food safety metrics and good agricultural practices. We also work with FDA partners on science-based regulations related to produce safety and findings from our research programs.

What does a normal day consist of?
I spend a lot of time writing grants and managing projects. The rest of my time is spent on research, including supervising an excellent team of field and laboratory staff. Another important part of my job is communication, including writing publications and giving professional presentations and workshops.  I don’t have a teaching appointment, but I do give guest lectures in a number of different undergraduate and graduate classes on campus. I teach a class on emerging food safety issues every year at Stanford University. 

What are your interests?
My professional interest is in the molecular epidemiology of zoonotic diseases, veterinary preventive medicine (I am board certified), microbiology and food safety. I live on a fifteen acre ranch and I have two Arabian horses. I have participated in endurance and ride and tie with my horses. I also have dogs, cats, dairy goats and honey bees. 

Please describe one or more of your career highlights.
In 1993, while I was working as a Cal-EIS resident at the state health department, I became involved in the surveillance for hantavirus cases and the first isolation of Sin Nombre virus from deer mice in California. The investigation was conducted with the state virus lab in Berkeley and the U.S Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. This was an exciting project, characterizing a newly recognized North American hantavirus reservoir (deer mice), and applying this information to create prevention recommendations for the public to reduce their risk of infection. . Another highlight of my career was working on the 2006 farm investigation following the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to bagged baby spinach grown in California. The farm investigation team found the outbreak strain in cattle, feral pigs and surface water and soil. I received three awards for work on that team: a superior accomplishment award from the California Department of Public Health; a leveraging and collaboration award from FDA; and an International Association for Food Protection Innovation Award.