Itís hard to read the news these days without seeing a story about the spinach-tainted outbreak of foodborne illness caused by E. coli 0157:H7. After all, 189 confirmed cases in 29 states (as of this writing) and several deaths are news, however tragic.
Tragedies also present opportunities. The emphasis on food safety in restaurants in the past 10 or 15 years has led to all sorts of innovation. Products such as color-coded utensils and cutting boards, cooling wands and paddles, walk-in alarms and monitors, and time- and temperature-sensitive labels were invented to help employees practice safe food handling techniques.
But while all of these innovations can help tell if youíve stored, prepared, cooked and cooled food properly, none of them can tell you if there are illness-causing pathogens in your food.
The latest outbreak is news primarily because of how widespread itís been. Fact is, foodborne illnesses happen regularly, and often. There have been 19 outbreaks caused by E. coli in fresh produce alone since 1995, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Thousands of people are sickened every year by pathogens in food.
Of course, safe food-handling practices help prevent many illnesses. New innovations, though, may help detect and deter even more pathogens. Here are a few that are making news.
Test Strips For Salmonella, E. coli
One of the problems the food processing industry has faced with food testing for pathogens has been the time it takes for results. Test results for E. coli, for example, routinely take 24 hours. About 10 years ago, researchers at Cornell University claimed theyíd invented a rapid response test, but it was never commercialized. Five years ago, researchers at the University of Michigan announced the same thing. Again, no product hit the market.
In May, however, a medical testing company in Florida introduced test strips for pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli that it claims can deliver results in as little as five minutes. Magna Medical Services, which offers services such as drug and HIV tests, got into the food industry after talking with alfalfa sprouts producers, according to general manager Robert Greene.
Alfalfa sprouts have been linked to E. coli outbreaks, but because they have such a short shelf life, producers complain that current test methods do them no good. They have no time to wait around for results before product goes bad. MMS developed test strips that when used with a reagent turn color in the presence of a pathogen. With the development of a strip to detect Salmonella, the company also quickly sent samples to poultry processors.
Interest, Greene says, has been very high since the FDA officially linked cases of E. coli-caused illnesses to bagged fresh spinach from three California counties on Sept. 15. Hits on the companyís Web site went from 700 a day to more than 23,000 the day of the FDA announcement.
Ozone Tackles Pathogens
Another technology thatís getting a lot of attention is a water filtration system that puts ozone into your water. Ozone, it turns out, doesnít just protect us from UV rays; it can also exterminate microbiological agents. In 1997, the FDA approved low-level ozone for use in food processing facilities as a food contact surface sanitizer.
An Arizona firm, Purity Intíl., has developed ozone technology for use in restaurants and even homes. The company has several ozone generators that can be hooked up to a restaurantís water system or a single sink. The ozone-charged water can be used to rinse and sanitize utensils, cutting boards and even fresh produce.
The company claims the system reduces pathogens such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli by more than 99.99%. The ozone also inhibits mold growth on fresh fruits and keeps lettuce from browning, thus extending shelf life. The ozone, by the way, turns back into oxygen in a few minutes, so the waterís taste isnít affected.
On The Horizon
Other innovations coming soon include new ways to detect pathogens in food. In recent weeks, researchers at Cornell University and Drexel University announced two new ways youíll be able to tell if E. coli and other microbes are in your food or on your equipment.
An assistant professor of fiber science at Cornell and her research team have developed nanofibers made with a biodegradable corn-based polymer compound. The composition of the fibers allows them to carry antibodies to specific microbes such as E. coli or Salmonella or chemicals, and could be incorporated into a biodegradable ďwipeĒ that would change color or exhibit some other effect if it came into contact with pathogens.
At Drexel University, a chemical engineering professor has developed a way to put the same antibodies on a narrow sliver of glass. The glass is attached to a layer of ceramic. When voltage is applied to the ceramic, the glass vibrates, and the antibodies change the resonating frequency of the glass if the pathogen is present. The professor is now working with a manufacturer to incorporate the technology into a hand-held device that you can use to test a batch of ground beef or fresh produce.
Ultimately, though, innovations should be used by food processors, along with good manufacturing practices and good agricultural practices, so outbreaks like the recent one donít have a chance of happening at all.