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.
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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.
Researchers need to manage data generated from millions of sample tests conducted through automated instruments and robotics while meeting internal and external standards. The volumes of information that are generated need to be effectively analyzed by researchers in order to arrive at the right conclusion in a short time period. To address these challenges, many researchers utilize laboratory information management systems (LIMS) to manage the vast array of instrument-derived data along with analytical and biologically relevant information.
LIMS provide researchers with fewer time constraints and allow them to develop of food products that are not only safer, but also better tasting with a longer shelf life.
Quality control measures are also employed to ensure that the final product coming off the food production line is safe and stays safe until it is consumed. Although no method in quality control has shown to be completely effective in preventing growth of the O157 colony, quality control managers have an increasing array of weapons in this fight, including ultrasound, ozone, electrolyzed water and irradiation. The jury is still out on whether these tactics may also alter the taste and nutritional value of the food product itself. However, precise management of each phase of food processing practice helps to minimize unexpected and costly liabilities later.
LIMS allow quality control (QC) managers to automate testing and track the results associated with items in the production line more efficiently and effectively. Moreover, they are able to isolate batches by interfacing the LIMS with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and manufacturing execution systems (MES). Cutting-edge LIMS platforms can be readily interfaced with manufacturing and production line software and automated equipment. This allows the creation of a uniform pipeline of information, minimizing information processing by humans – resulting in less downtime and more current, accurate reporting.
Recent developments with E. coli O157:H7 have forced food and beverage laboratories to ensure complete production compliance with not only the corporation-specific internal standards, but also with government and industry practices, including good laboratory practices (GLPs), current good manufacturing practices (cGMPs), and regulatory requirements such as 21 CFR Part 11.
In case of an adverse event, such as discovery of the O157 strain in the product, the LIMS application provides QC managers with real-time audit trails of specific touch-points in the supply chain where corrective and preventative action can be taken. LIMS end users, for example, can stop the production line early when contamination is found, reducing unnecessary cost and waste from contaminated food products and eliminating the need to destroy packaged food and beverage products after they have entered into the stream of commerce.In addition, because LIMS can be accessed throughout the company, they provide a wealth of information to employees at all levels, from the chief science officer and vice-president of quality, to the bench workers who run samples and manage the data on foodborne bacteria, and ultimately to the corporate purchaser, who relies on the delivery of a quality product.
Kourosh Sabet-Payman, M.Sc. is business development specialist with LabVantage Solutions, Inc. in Bridgewater, N.J. He may be reached at email@example.com.