The Food and Drug Administration is challenging all comers to develop better and faster ways to detect salmonella on fresh produce, with big bucks offered as the carrot for the agency’s first America COMPETES contest.

“We’re focusing on produce first because it has a major impact on public health,” said FDA’s chief science officer and research director David White in an FDA blog on Sept. 23.

“According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), contaminated produce causes 46% of foodborne illness and 23% of foodborne illness-related deaths.

“But detecting low levels of salmonella in produce can be like finding a needle in a haystack: difficult, expensive and time-consuming. Even a simple tomato might have up to a billion surface bacteria that do not cause harm to humans. Quickly detecting just the few types of bacteria that do cause harm, like salmonella, is a daunting task.”

Prize money for the contest will come from the America COMPETES Act, signed into law by President George Bush in 2006 and reauthorized by President Barak Obama in 2010. America COMPETES — which stands for Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science — provides money for federal agencies to conduct contests to spur innovation and solve problems to advance their core missions, according to a news release from FDA.

The agency is particularly interested in reducing the time required for detection and subtype identification of salmonella, according to a website for the FDA Food Safety Challenge at www.foodsafetychallenge.com.

“FDA is most interested in concepts that explore the acceleration or elimination of sample preparation and/or enrichment in the testing process,” according to the website.

Produce growers and shippers frequently complain about the turnaround time for test results during inspections and recalls because of the sample preparation and enrichment processes.

FDA offers $500,000 in food safety contest prizes“Testing for microbial contamination of produce currently can take up to several days,” FDA’s White said in his blog.

“Meanwhile, the produce may sit in a warehouse, where its shelf life decreases with each passing day. Consumers can’t eat it, and producers can’t sell it. Those limitations affect the economy, from consumers to producers to farmers.”

The contest runs from Sept. 23 through Nov. 9. Up to $500,000 total is available for prizes. A panel of food safety and pathogen detection experts from the FDA, CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will judge the submissions, determine finalists, and select a winner or winners.

Up to five entrants will be selected finalists and will each receive $20,000. FDA will provide subject matter experts to coach the finalists to help them further develop their ideas before they present their refined concepts to the judges. The remaining prize money will be given to the final winner or winners of the contest, according to the contest website.