In her eye-opening documentary “Poisoned,” filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig shines a light on the extent of contamination in the American food industry. Everyday grocery items from lettuce to chicken breasts, and even cookie dough, are sometimes tainted by dangerous levels of bacteria.
This isn’t surprising, necessarily. Romaine lettuce is frequently contaminated by E. coli O157 carried in irrigation water. Salmonella and Campylobacter, which often contaminate chicken, are prevalent in the fecal matter on chicken farms. And the cookie dough? Raw flour can carry harmful bacteria such as E. coli, which remain alive even after low-temperature baking. Raw or undercooked eggs can also introduce Salmonella into the dough, posing a risk to people who like a bite of raw dough while baking or who don’t bake their cookies long enough.
These contamination paths are built into the food production process and are hard to eliminate. That’s why, in the U.S. alone, a staggering 48 million people a year fall victim to foodborne illnesses. It’s also why we need innovative solutions to address pathogenic contamination. One such solution is ultraviolet (UV) technology. By harnessing the power of UV light, which is capable of killing harmful bacteria and pathogens in food items of all types, the food industry can reduce the prevalence and severity of food-related illnesses.
A Safe and Versatile Solution
UV technology offers a promising and pragmatic solution because it can significantly enhance food safety with minimal adverse effects on the environment or on the quality of foods.
One vital step toward improving food safety is treating irrigation water, a common source of contamination on farms. Among the disinfection methods available, UV technology is an ideal choice. Unlike chlorine, which can negatively impact plant health and the environment, UV technology provides a powerful yet safe means of eliminating pathogens from the water. By effectively neutralizing harmful microorganisms, UV treatment can ensure that irrigation water is made clean for agricultural use.
UV technology can also be used to curb the spread of pathogens in food processing plants, where it can be used as a surface disinfectant for conveyor belts. This is where a lot of cross-contamination happens and it only takes one tainted batch to spoil the rest due to the surface-to-surface transfer of pathogens.
Let’s consider a scenario in which a worker cuts up a chicken tainted with Salmonella; a single contaminated bird can contaminate an entire production line. Implementing UV surface disinfection measures would act as a robust barrier against that contamination.
The same disinfection measures could apply in fruit and vegetable processing. For instance, the outer surface of a cantaloupe is porous with a webbed texture that provides numerous crevices where bacteria can hide and thrive. Addressing this contamination is a challenge because these fruits might be irrigated with tainted water. In this case, incorporating an additional disinfection step that includes UV light makes good sense.
UV technology can even be used to disinfect food packaging. By ensuring that packaging material is free from harmful microorganisms, UV disinfection offers another layer of protection that enhances the safety and quality of the food product throughout its journey—from the point of production to the consumer’s doorstep.
Address Contamination at Its Source
Effective management of harmful pathogens requires a dual approach centered around disinfection and source-level regulations. The ultimate goal is to prevent pathogens from coming into contact with food products at the outset; however, the current regulatory framework is somewhat limited. In the farm environment, for example, regulations primarily rely on periodic testing by growers to identify the presence of pathogens such as E. coli in their water supply. These tests are conducted on an infrequent basis, often monthly or quarterly. For instance, Food Safety Modernization Act regulations in the U.S. rely on periodic, infrequent micro tests of the source water.