Bytes vs. Bugs: Cutting-edge Technology Helps Combat the E. coli O157:H7 Menace

Recent outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 in the northeast fast-food restaurant sector have caused much anxiety among private sector food and beverage processing and preparation centers and public health officials, but several technological developments are helping food manufacturers protect their products from bacterial contaminants.

Big Problems from Little Bacteria

The virulent form of the bacteria, O157:H7, which sent 369 people in New York and 80 people in New Jersey to hospitals, has proven to be a difficult health hazard to combat. Only a couple of months ago, a similar strain of E. coli caused the California spinach industry to consider radical changes in how uncooked spinach is processed and delivered to market. However, this pathogen is not only present in raw food products; it can readily be found in cooked consumer foods, such as cooked hamburgers and other meat products that are served in fast-food restaurants nationwide.

This most recent health crisis facing the food and beverage industry is not uncommon and is a problem for many companies within and outside the United States. The E. coli outbreak of 1993 brought Jack-In-The-Box, the fast-food hamburger chain, numerous lawsuits and out-of-court settlements, with the last settlement not reached until 2006. The recent outbreaks at Taco Bell restaurants will perhaps yield many lawsuits against Taco Bell and its parent company, Pepsi.

Two Pronged Assault on E. coli

To offset the outbreaks from these potentially fatal, virulent pathogenic forms, several food and beverage processors and suppliers have implemented a two-pronged approach to insuring the safety of their food products before they enter the consumer supply chain. The first prong focuses on research and development to establish new breakthroughs in creating safer food products, while the second on quality testing and manufacturing controls utilizing new technology to ensure the consistency and quality of food production, as mandated by the FDA.

One recent R&D advance to combat the spread of E. coli in processed food products, made at the USDA, is edible bactericidal food wraps and sprays.

Such breakthroughs provide an enhanced alternative to the indigestible “environmentalist-unfriendly” synthetic chemical and food irradiation techniques. “All produce-cleaning methods help to some degree, but our new coatings and films may provide a more concentrated, longer-lasting method for killing bacteria,” according to Tara McHugh, Ph.D., a research leader with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, These new edible food sprays and coverings were developed through trial experiments on oregano oil, an organic alternative that can reduce the survival rate of the O157 strain by up to 50 percent.

Another alternative being explored is infusing of food products with substantially beneficial quantities of probiotics that attack the O157 strain. In addition, these probiotics minimize epithelial damage to the intestinal lumen caused by the O157 strain, thereby preventing the hallmark symptoms of the disease. Researchers need to identify the right colony of such probiotics, able to survive in the intended food product, will require intensive cultural and microbiological analysis in order to isolate the right formula for enhancing the natural quality of the food product. The result is minimization of health risks created by “foreign” invaders, such as the O157 strain, according finds from The Food Safety Network.

Data Management Tools Ferret Out Bacteria

Finding the right pathogen in sufficient time to offset disastrous consequences is of the essence, as food and beverage researchers realize when they seek to identify species-specific pathogens through cell centrifugation and isolation. Pathogens such as the O157 strain go through different active and inactive phases that make it difficult to tell if the bacteria is actively present in the food products. Therefore, random, high-throughput sample testing of various batches throughout the food and beverage processing cycle – and the life cycle of the E. coli – are necessary to determine the presence of the pathogen.

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