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Chuck Kaspar named director of Food Research Institute

Chuck Kaspar, professor in the Department of Bacteriology, has been named the faculty director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He started the position on July 1.

The Food Research Institute (FRI), which was established at the University of Chicago in 1946 and moved to UW–Madison in 1966, is considered a leader in identifying and resolving food safety issues to meet community, government, and industry needs. The mission of the institute is to catalyze multidisciplinary and collaborative research on microbial foodborne pathogens and toxins and to provide training, outreach, and service to enhance the safety of the food supply.

Kaspar has been affiliated with FRI since he joined the UW–Madison faculty in 1992 as an assistant professor in the bacteriology department. His research program has largely focused on the transmission and evolution of two zoonotic pathogens associated with foodborne disease outbreaks: Enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) and Salmonella.

In the role of FRI director, Kaspar is responsible for providing leadership and vision for FRI, developing and maintaining connections with industry sponsors and government representatives, and growing funding for FRI programs and activities.

“Chuck brings incredible leadership experience to the directorship as the former chair of Bacteriology,” says Doug Reinemann, CALS associate dean for extension and outreach. “Moreover, his past and continuing research and teaching strongly connect to food safety and the FRI mission.”

With the explosion of serious O157:H7 outbreaks in the 1990s to 2000s, including the tragic Jack-in-the-Box outbreak and the lesser-known UW-Madison stock pavilion outbreak, Kaspar became interested in how EHEC could live benignly in cattle, its natural reservoir. Over several decades, his lab has collected and studied the genomics of thousands of EHEC isolates from farms across Wisconsin. This work helped identify pre-harvest interventions to reduce transmission of EHEC between animals and species and investigated genomics and/or post-harvest strategies for EHEC reduction in apple cidercheeseground beefpepperoniromaine lettuce, and other foods.

Kaspar’s lab has long studied how Salmonella can adapt to survive under harsh conditions such as acid, desiccation, and heat. Recently, his group discovered that a single nucleotide change is sufficient to make Salmonella tolerant to bile salts and acids (which the pathogen encounters when infecting humans). Understanding how Salmonella (and potentially other bacteria) adapt to stressors at the molecular level will hopefully lead to targeted antimicrobial interventions that can block or bypass pathogen adaptation to environmental stresses.

The FRI director position was previously held for 13 years by Chuck Czuprynski, professor in the Department of Pathobiological Sciences, who recently stepped down and plans to remain involved in the institute.