UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Representatives from Penn State, Meru University of Science and Technology, and Meru County in Kenya signed a memorandum of understanding today (March 2) in a ceremony in Kenya to formally commence their new partnership. This collaboration also will involve the Technical University of Denmark.
An MOU is a formal agreement between two parties to collaborate on mutually beneficial projects.
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,” Dudley said. “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 the three main research topics are foodborne pathogens, especially those found in meat and milk products; zoonotic diseases in Meru; and food quality and safety of meat and milk products.
Erika Ganda, assistant professor of food animal microbiomes, said 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.
Researchers will collaborate to examine the incidence of and risk factors for infections associated with consumption of meat and milk products in Meru, as well as the most common products associated with foodborne infections and potential points of contamination of milk and meat.
Additionally, Ganda said, an increase of 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,” Ganda said. “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.”
Kerry Kaylegian, associate research professor, said she will help with the third focus of the collaboration, which is assessing food quality and food safety of milk products in Meru.
Researchers will analyze safety practices regarding milk and meat products among farmers, handlers and vendors in Meru, as well as the distribution of different types of pathogens that are found in milk and meat products. They also will explore factors contributing to antimicrobial resistance in pathogens found in these products.
“I have provided technical support on dairy food manufacturing and food safety to the dairy industry domestically and internationally,” Kaylegian said. “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.”
Ganda said they are also part of a collaboration with Elizabeth Ransom, associate professor of international affairs at Penn State, investigating the social aspects of antimicrobial resistance domestically and internationally.
According to Dudley, the collaboration came about two years ago when Nkuchia M’ikanatha, an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Food Science at Penn State, was at his home in Kenya.
M’ikanatha said he had several conversations with Meru residents who requested help understanding whether unexplained local illnesses were associated with food. Simultaneously, a similar request came from a Meru farmer who wondered whether food handling after food spoilage and a lack of distribution methods were contributing to food insecurity in the area.
Penn State faculty members agreed to join the partnership if their collaborators at Meru University took the lead in suggesting research based on an assessment of what Meru residents wanted. Additional collaborators from the College of Medicine and the College of Engineering at Penn State and the Technical University of Denmark eventually joined the discussions, as well.
Along with spurring new research, Dudley said the partnership also will have a mentoring aspect, with faculty from Penn State providing 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,” Dudley said. “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.”
Ganda also provided a two-day workshop on molecular methods for pathogen detection from DNA extraction through sequencing, saying she took the opportunity of the trip to Kenya for the MOU signing ceremony to start having an impact in the Meru community.
“When I saw the Meru initiative developing, I realized it would be beneficial to have something concrete come out of it beyond the MOU,” Ganda said. “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 a first key outcome of this budding collaboration.”
Additionally, students at Penn State will collaborate with students at the Kenyan university — an opportunity M’ikanatha said will allow students to gain key insights they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.
“When two students from different continents have the chance to collaborate, they bring different viewpoints and experiences to the table,” M’ikanatha said. “This makes their training and education so much more robust and oftentimes leads to a solution they normally wouldn’t arrive at otherwise.”
–Katie Bohn, Penn State University