Fire With Fire: Scientists Using Bacteria to Fight Bad Food

Fire-With-FireDespite advances in food manufacturing, handling and equipment policies, foodborne illness remains a critical concern for producers. According to the CDC, in fact, approximately 1 in 6 — 48 million — Americans are made sick by foodborne diseases each year. Of these, more than 100,000 are hospitalized and 3000 don’t survive. Bottom line? Companies need ways to take the fight to bad food; here’s a look at two of the most promising battle fronts.

Plant Probiotics

At the University of Delaware, researchers are investigating a way to make food-bearing plants more resistant to human-harmful strains of bacteria. Their solution? A kind of “plant probiotic”, a bacterial strain which is completely harmless to humans but helps plants fend off pathogens such as listeria. Known as strain UD1022, the bacteria has demonstrated the ability to reduce the persistence of listeria within three days of application by regulating the behavior of plant stomata — which open and close as plants breathe and give off water. In addition, initial testing suggests that the regulation of stomata could help increase the longevity of plants by causing them to lose less water over time. Ideally, the new bacteria will prevent high-risk bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella from “hiding” in plants, even after they’ve been thoroughly washed.

Laser Focus

In China, meanwhile, scientists at Zhejiang Normal University along with researchers from Umea University in Sweden are looking at another way to detect foodborne pathogens: Lasers. Their work focuses on the risks of using food past “best before” dates and the possibility that food may spoil long before these dates pass, even if the packaging is intact. Why? Because the factors driving bacteria growth vary from package to package and product to product, making “best before” and “use by” dates a law-of-averages guessing game. Their new tool uses optical spectrometry to detect the presence of specific gases given off by bacterial growth — such as carbon dioxide — through glass or plastic packaging. Ideally, the laser solution could help both food manufacturers and medical companies ensure that any bacterial-prone product is safe for consumption before being sold.

Firm Foundation

Of course, custom bacteria and laser tools make little difference if production lines don’t keep up their end of the bargain and introduce foodborne illnesses during the manufacturing or packaging process. As a result, it’s a combination of high-tech advances and solid best practices — such as the installation of dry vapor belt cleaning systems or regular use of heavy-duty vapor steam cleaners — which deliver ideal process results. The end goal? From farm to factory to franchise, food that’s bacteria-free, healthy and high-quality.

Next Steps

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