(April 16, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) The Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, the home of the newly formed Center for Produce Safety, traces its roots back to 2002, when the Buy California program launched it with a budget of $5.

A partnership among the University of California-Davis, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Health Services, the institute was designed to advance understanding in various fields related to food safety and security, and to provide food safety education programs to consumers and those in food related industries. It is located near the UC-Davis campus.

Since its founding, Jerry Gillespie, a professor and veterinary pathologist, has been the institute’s director. He plans to retire at the end of the current academic year.

Gillespie said the institute is not funded by the state of California but must secure grants and donations to continue its work. The institute has a staff of 30, including five research scientists.

The institute was founded, in part, because of bioterrorism threats following the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

Gillespie said the institute developed the nation’s only Department of Homeland Security-approved bioterrorism preparedness curriculum, which has been distributed to governmental agencies and schools nationwide.

Gillespie said his staff played a key role in researching September’s E. coli incident. While a six-month investigation didn’t pinpoint the specific cause of the source of the tainted spinach, pathogens from wild pigs in the area and manure from a nearby cattle lot, had the same strain of E. coli.

“The staff was well ahead of the game with regard to research into wildlife pathogens even before last year’s outbreak,” Gillespie said.

He said a researcher there is on the verge of making big strides in studying what factors determine whether one strain of E. coli is more toxic to humans than other strains. He said those findings would be published soon.

The institute’s research spans the spectrum of food types and sources, including plants and animals, as well as food from both domestic and foreign sources.