Just as Alexander Fleming’s groundbreaking discoveries on penicillin ushered in a new era of antibacterial agents to extend human lifespans, it was the work of Louis Pasteur that helped introduce the food safety industry to new methods to significantly extend product shelf life. Through his work on germ theory, Pasteur (1822–1895) recognized the presence of microorganisms in food as potential culprits leading to spoilage. He subsequently devised a method for heating food products such as milk and wine to certain temperatures and for specific durations (a process now called pasteurization) to reduce the microorganism burden in such foods.
Since those early days, new innovations and technologies have continued to revolutionize the food industry. Nonetheless, with the increasing growth of a complex, global food supply chain, ensuring the safety of food products remains a major challenge; thus, both developed and developing nations continue to confront and address major issues related to food safety.
Food safety issues
During this past holiday season, while I was running around grocery stores, buying food and fresh produce to cook meals and entertain family and friends, the fact that I was writing this editorial on food safety was continuously on my mind. As I visited a wide variety of grocery stores from my local Safeway and Giant to Costco, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, I started to look at the food we consume and its journey from farm to table with renewed curiosity and interest.
It is remarkable that Americans (and citizens in many other developed nations) have continuous, year-round access to countless fresh fruits and vegetables from around the world, and that we can purchase such a diverse selection of meat, dairy, and other perishable products designed for very short-term consumption often by visiting just a single retail location.
As I carefully examined the variety of food products available in the U.S. today, I gained renewed respect for the global system that is able to manufacture, transport, store, distribute, and retail them around the world to satisfy consumer needs. I also realized that the challenges of food safety are increasingly complex since the number of players involved in the supply chain of a single food product has increased significantly in recent years. This, in turn, has increased requirements for implementing various measures for monitoring and quality control at multiple levels, often across national boundaries.
In addition, the food industry mostly continues to operate on very thin margins requiring that new technologies be incorporated into the supply chain in a very cost-effective manner. For instance, in one grocery store, I could find whole wheat Indian breads, imported from India, for just $1.99. A friend of mine, who had just returned from New Zealand, was raving about the landscapes and natural beauty of the country, as well as the quality of its dairy products. She was amazed to find New Zealand cheese at our local grocery store at much lower prices than what she paid there. If either of these suppliers were to increase quality control measures applied to their products, the additional cost of such measures would have to be carefully weighed between being passed onto customers and being absorbed by different players in the supply chain.
Such decisions are becoming increasingly important since, while globalization and mass production have significantly increased the quantity, quality, and variety of foods available, they have also introduced new risks such as toxins and new pathogens into the global food system.
This issue has been brought to the headlines in recent years due to multiple instances of major food pathogen outbreaks resulting in large-scale food poisoning and subsequently massive recalls by food suppliers. Food poisoning is illness related to eating food contaminated by harmful bacteria.
According to foodsafety.gov, the U.S. federal government Web site that provides consumer information related to food safety, one in six Americans is affected by food poisoning each year and “the organisms that cause the most illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States are: Salmonella, Norovirus,Campylobacter, Toxoplasma, E. coli O157, Listeria, and Clostridium perfringens.” While most people recover from food poisoning without any lasting effects, for some, such as older adults, pregnant women, and people with chronic illnesses, the consequences of food poisoning can be deadly or very devastating, including long-term effects such as kidney failure and brain and nerve damage.
Thus, it is increasingly important for food producers, suppliers, processors, distributors, and retailers to be aware of the risks and potential food safety issues from the earliest stages of the food production process. This not only saves time and money but also helps improve overall public health.
Food safety measures
In the U.S. there are a number of agencies that assist in monitoring the safety of food and the health of citizens, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
One of the most significant changes to the U.S. food safety landscape has been the signing of the FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) by President Obama on January 4, 2011. FSMA aims to shift the oversight of U.S. government authorities from management of contamination to prevention of outbreaks.
Key highlights of the regulation include increased preventative measures such as requirements for more inspections and stringent monitoring. In addition, the legislation enhances oversight of imported foods since, according to the FDA, “an estimated 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, including 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.” Lastly, the legislation will also now have mandatory recall authority for all food products, further ensuring that contaminated foods cause minimal damage to public health.
With a growing number of participants in the global food market, and with increased oversight and monitoring of the manufacturing and supply processes, the utilization of new technologies, particularly cutting-edge instrumentation such as that used in clinical laboratories, is becoming increasingly important.
Food technologies for pathogen detection
Currently there are several players who are leaders in providing food safety technology solutions for pathogen detection. Companies such as Thermo Scientific (Waltham, MA) and 3M (St. Paul, MN) are among major players in culture-based assays. Thermo offers a range of products and services from its Oxoid and Remel brands for microbiological food safety applications. 3M’s products include 3M™ Petrifilm™ Plates; 3M™ Clean-Trace™ Hygiene Monitoring Systems; 3M™ Tecra™ Pathogen and Toxin kits; as well as sample handling, media, and enrichment products.
bioMérieux (Marcy l’Etoile, France), another leader in the testing field, offers the VIDAS Immunoassay and VIDAS UP platforms. The UP platform is based on phage recombinant protein assays that provide high sensitivity and stability in detecting specific pathogen strains.
Molecular diagnostic techniques
Several companies also provide molecular diagnostics-based approaches. For example, DuPont Qualicon (Wilmington, DE) offers the BAX® system, which is based on realtime PCR technology. Another new entrant into the molecular space is Roka Bioscience (Warren, NJ), which is launching a new platform based on rRNA targeting to detect pathogens more rapidly and accurately.
While these companies represent just a few of the instrumentation providers in the food safety space, the breadth of their technology highlights the ways in which cutting-edge products can be applied to increase preventative measures to monitor the global food supply.
Considering that one in six Americans is still affected by food poisoning each year, and that the statistics are likely higher for most developing nations, we will need to diligently, intelligently, and efficiently incorporate new technologies into the food supply to improve not only global human nutrition but also global human health.
Mukta M. Shukla (M.S., Chem., Germany) is co-founder of Glygen Corp. of Columbia, MD, and a Consulting Editor for American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail: mshukla@ americanlaboratory.com.