Food Microbiology Marches On

Editor’s Note: This article on the history and impact of advances in food microbiology is the first in a new series for Food Quality. In “FoodTech: Tools That Changed the Industry,” we look at various technologies and tools, such as microbiological testing, that have played a key role in and had an indelible impact on the food industry. In our next issue, we will explore the emergence and evolution of rapid food microbiology tools.

Napoleon wanted to conquer the world, but he knew, as his famous quote aptly states, “an army travels on its stomach.” To be sure his men had safe rations, he offered a 12,000-franc prize to anyone who could come up with a food preservation method. Nicolas Appert, the chef and distiller who ultimately claimed the prize, spent more than a decade discovering that boiled foods placed in airtight glass containers would not spoil. In 1810, Peter Durand, a British merchant who received a patent for the tin containers that were forerunners of the cans used today, further refined the concept.

Safe food meant strong troops and power to Napoleon. The message isn’t so different today for food companies, which have learned from the history of food microbiology. They realize their businesses could be toppled by a large recall or a reputation for tainted foods and that outbreaks can sicken or kill consumers. Millions of dollars are lost to product recalls as production halts, products sit on warehouse shelves and then are discarded, and the public hesitates to buy from that company again.

That’s why companies have embraced testing for pathogens, thus enabling the evolution of better food microbiology tools. Scientists have used Petri dishes to grow samples and analyze them, added immunoassays and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tools in the 1990s, and are now pushing toward more rapid test results. Growing cultures—a pervasive part of testing even today—can take up to a week and remains a bottleneck. Government and industry groups have also pushed for regulations and good manufacturing practices to advance the field of food microbiology.

“They [companies] are driven by risk aversion—looking at their auditing practices and at what they need to do better,” said Donald Zink, PhD, senior science advisor for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, Md.

“It’s not just about testing, but about managing your inventory and business,” said Purnendu Vasavada, PhD, a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin in River Falls and a member of the Food Quality editorial advisory board. “The food industry has always been looking at contamination. This is their bread and butter,” he said.

Louis Pasteur was an early leader in understanding the persistence of microbes, and the basics of food preservation have remained the same since his time.

Louis Pasteur was an early leader in understanding the persistence of microbes, and the basics of food preservation have remained the same since his time.

Since 2005, total microbiology testing volume has increased from 629.9 million to 738.3 million tests, an increase of 17.8%, according to Tom Weschler, founder of Strategic Consulting Inc., Woodstock, Vt. Testing for food pathogens, which, at 25.6%, has grown faster than the total market for microbial tests, now comprises 138.1 million tests. The total market for food microbiological testing topped $2 billion in 2008.

“There is testing done all the way from the farm to the fork,” said Weschler. The majority takes place using samples taken at the food factory. Not as much is done at food retail and service. “Food companies want to sell safe products, but they also want to protect their brand name, which is most directly influenced by a recall,” he said.

High Stakes

But more than brand name is at stake, because lives are in the balance. Bon Vivant Soup Company went out of business after a 1971 case of botulism in its vichyssoise killed at least one person and made others ill. “We still have some of the cans in the agency museum, even the swollen ones,” said Dr. Zink, who formerly worked in industry for Nestle and Campbell Soup Co. And last year, Peanut Corporation of America went bankrupt after its widespread Salmonella outbreak was linked to at least nine deaths and 636 cases of food poisoning.

About Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra writes about science, technology, and business for general and specialty news outlets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including coverage of the "farm to fork" movement and food safety. She’s been involved in several media startups, and had articles published by The Boston Globe, Reuters, Science magazine, and others. She holds an MS in science journalism from Boston University and a BS in medical writing from University of Pittsburgh. She won numerous journalism fellowships and awards, including the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lori enjoys bicycling, snowshoeing, gardening, and traveling. She lives in the western mountains of Maine.

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