Foodborne pathogens are the silent interlopers in our food supply, making their presence known through a litany of deleterious symptoms after consumption. In addition to the havoc they impose on digestive systems—and overall health and well-being—they can take a staggering economic toll.
Food can be contaminated at nearly any step in the process
Research from the >University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute indicates that the “five leading bugs—Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Toxoplasma gondii, and norovirus—result in $12.7 billion in annual economic loss, with the Top 10 pathogen-food combinations responsible for more than $8 billion.” 1
Food can be contaminated at nearly any step in the process, from production, processing, distribution, and preparation. While consumers bear some responsibility in preparing and cooking food safely, the food industry is responsible for producing safe food.
Nancy Donley, board member and spokesperson for the STOP Foodborne Illness organization refers to the “new” Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed into law in early 2011, as helping to create a culture shift within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “This act enables the FDA to be more prevention-focused instead of reactionary. It requires food companies to have food safety plans,” she said. In effect, the law gave the FDA more recall power and more inspection authority. According to the Department of Health & Human Services, it is the “most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years.”2
By emphasizing prevention, the focal point shifts to food manufacturers and producers, their processes and safety plans. “Some food manufacturers have embraced the law, stating ‘we want regulations.’ At the same time, the act has language in it that exempts small businesses,” Donley said, which leaves a gap in the level of oversight consumers can expect overall.
“At STOP Foodborne Illness, we believe that all companies have to play by the same rules, because pathogens do not discriminate,” said Donley.
Technologies to keep food safer
Like any type of business, food manufacturers want processes and tools that keep their production efficient. According to Donley, “the FSMA does not require additional testing or more equipment; instead it formalizes food safety practices and makes them more consistent.”
Yet, time-saving technologies do boost efficiency, and in some cases, consistency. One of the more acute components of food safety is maintaining proper temperature, whether in freezing or heating. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) is used in the food industry to earmark potential safety hazards to reduce threats to food safety. “The biggest problem with HACCP is recognizing the need for food safety in terms of time and temperature,” stated Alan Mellinger, Business Unit Manager for Comark Instruments.
“We currently have tailored products such as pocket digital thermometers that measure down to 1.5 millimeters, with a sensor in the tip that offers a fast response,” said Mellinger. “A probe is used for thawed or cooked food and also for packaged food sitting on a pallet.” Yet, temperature checks are not necessarily consistent. “At times, these checks are run at the end of the day and documented after the fact,” he added.
To add more convenience, and perhaps instill greater consistency, data loggers or remote wireless technology is available to monitor freezers and coolers. “A series of alarms is sent to mobile phones to alert food processors of any significant changes in temperature. The general trend is toward wireless technology for monitoring temperatures 24/7,” said Mellinger. “The electronic technology is becoming more cost-effective. More importantly, recent codes have stated that food thermometers need to be digital, which are more precise. The dial thermometers are not precision instruments.”
In addition to sustaining proper temperature, technologies to detect contaminants in food are advancing by becoming simpler, more robust, and offering time-saving functionality. According to recent reports from BBC News, Cardiff University has created a Bioluminescent Assay in Real-Time (BART) that quickly tests for bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E.coli), Salmonella, and Listeria. Rather than sending samples to a lab, food is “placed inside BART and the bacteria triggers luciferase, which is found in fireflies, to produce light.”3 As the samples are tested for the DNA of these bacteria, the luciferase is triggered when the bacteria are present.
Invented by Professor Jim Murray, Cardiff University, and Dr. Laurence Tisi, Lumora Ltd., the device allows for convenient microbiological testing and simplifies the process. “Portable versions of the device mean that it’s now possible to test farm animals in the food chain.” 4
Time-saving technologies for food manufacturing and testing are also available, including FTIR, FTNIR, and Raman technology. “Our portfolio of spectroscopy tools provides quick and easy solutions to test for raw material ingredient identification (RMID). In addition, our Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) delivers the ability to rapidly detect biological or chemical agents, including insecticides and fungal by-products,” said Dan Quinn, Environmental & Food Safety Business Development Specialist, Thermo Fisher Scientific. “Some applications now take minutes rather than days, speeding up the analysis significantly.”
Already on the market is the Thermo Scientific Q-Exactive benchtop mass spectrometer which reveals “in a few simple steps potential organic adulterants and the ability to screen for more than 1,000 targeted pesticides, as well as detecting unknown contaminants such as antibiotics and fungal toxins such as mycotoxins,” said Quinn. “With food substances transferred around the globe, this technology allows us to look for unknown contaminants and suggests what may be in a food sample. The instrument uses high-resolution accurate mass (HR/AM) Orbitrap™ technology and software that suggests a molecular identity. Unlike previous mass spectrometers, it can identify, quantify, and confirm, all on a single LC/MS platform. For food laboratories and large commercial food manufacturers, it offers results that are rugged, reliable, and reproducible.”
Food producers and manufacturers may also look to the new iCAP-Q ICPMS (Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer) as an option for detecting metals and mineral deposits at lower levels of detection. “The dramatically different iCAP-Q is very sensitive and detects these elements quickly,” said Quinn.
“Never 100%—but better”
A recent global study by Underwriters Laboratories found that “with new government regulations and heightened consumer awareness of food safety, 92% of food manufacturers agree product safety is becoming more important.”5
Mellinger believes that human error in food preparation can be remedied and improve overall food safety. “The issue is consistency and following the systems and processes established. Those who develop the instruments used in food safety can continue to make products easy to use and supply easy-to-follow instructions,” he said.
Equally important are technologies that speed up the process for testing adulterants in food, yet are ever-more sensitive in detection. As food substances are imported and exported around the world, the need for robust, reliable instruments to identify contaminants is paramount.
For consumers’ part, staying educated and alert to food product recalls and alerts, issued on foodsafety.gov will help. Also, says Donley, avoid misconceptions. “Consumers assume that higher quality such as a better cut of beef is safer, but this is not necessarily true,” she said. “Another big misconception is that food grown locally or designated as ‘organic’ is safer. Organically grown means it does not use pesticides but [this label] does not cover pathogens.”
Bottom line? “We’re never going to have a 100% safe food supply. But it can be safer than what it is. We want food handlers to use caution and understand that a lack of food safety can be a vehicle for painful illness and death,” said Donley.