The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday it had awarded 17 grants totaling $10.4 million for university research projects designed to boost food safety at a time when millions of Americans get food-borne illnesses each year.

The funds are being divided among universities in 13 states, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said during a visit to Michigan State University, a recipient of three grants. One of the studies there will look for better ways to prevent harmful pathogens from contaminating packages of ready-to-eat, fresh-cut produce.

"Primarily, we expect that the research and education spurred by these grants will find solutions to some pressing food safety issues," Merrigan said. "Additionally, we want to help American consumers, restaurant employees and teachers put new food safety principles into practice."

The grants were made through the National Integrated Food Safety Initiative, which deals with food safety issues across the spectrum, beginning with production on the farm and including processing, distribution, and selection and preparation. The institute's programs combine university research with education of consumers, food service workers and others.

A $1.8 million grant to Michigan State University will support the project designed to develop the best possible packaging systems for fresh-cut produce and detect practices that increase the risk of contamination.

Another project, awarded $542,824, will look for ways to reduce the risk of salmonella contamination of low-moisture foods such as flour and peanut butter.

Other studies will focus on safety of eggs, meats and canned foods.