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Keeping Us Safe – What’s Being Done in Food Safety Research

Posted in Food Safety,Science on April 8, 2018

I frequently see various memes on social media proclaiming the virtues of being a baby boomer, a generational term that includes me. These memes colorfully describe what it was like “all those years ago”, when we left the house in the morning to play with our friends and weren’t seen again until dinner time, when crime wasn’t as heinous or prevalent, when lead-based paint was the norm, and when foodborne illnesses (known then as “food poisoning”) were practically unheard-of, and certainly not as publicized.

Since I’ve been writing for this website, I am endlessly fascinated by the research I conduct related to food safety practices as well as foodborne illnesses and other issues. The advances in food safety are astounding, and continue to improve in scope and purpose. What I, and perhaps many of my baby boomer contemporaries who ever experienced a bout of food poisoning attributed to “bad chicken, a bad stew, a bad piece of pie,” can now frequently be traced to a common source, and with ever-increasing specificity.

The following is a round-up of the most up-to-date scientific advances in ensuring our food safety.  Due to a stroke of genetic genius, I have spared readers my scientific clumsiness and confined myself to observing and writingabout those who truly know what to do with a Petri dish, microscope, and long, polysyllabic words. I bring you a brief summation of nucleic acid extraction dipstick methodology, gentamycin protection assay, amoebae, and other.What?

And You Thought a Dipstick Was Just For Checking Your Oil

At the University of Queensland, Australia, pathogens have been detected using untreated cellulose-based paper in a process known as nucleic acid extraction dipstick methodology. In this process, DNA and RNA from living organisms can be amplified without specialized equipment. According to Professor Jimmy Botella, a food science researcher, “we have successfully used the dipsticks in remote plantations in Papua New Guinea to diagnose sick trees and have applied it to livestock, human samples, pathogens in food, and in detecting [risks] such as E.colicontaminated water.” That’s exciting news in terms of identifying potential sources of this nasty bacterium.

Campylobacter as a Trojan Horse

In another study at Kingston University of London, England, researchers discovered that Campylobactercan use another organism’s cells as a kind of Trojan horse, infiltrating tiny organisms called amoebae and generally hiding themselves from harsh environmental conditions. Diabolical cowards.

But why is this important in terms of food safety? The researchers employed what, on the surface, appears to be a sneaky procedure in which they observed how campylobacterinvades healthy host cells. It’s called gentamycin protection assay. I visualize sort of a high-tech, but extremely tiny, episode of a TV detective show. On a serious note, the research could assist in preventing the spread of this type of infection. Those amoebic hosts often exist in the same environments such as in drinking water for chickens on poultry farms. This can, and often does, increase the risk of infection.

Social Media Can Help Identify Foodborne Illness Sources

New York’s Columbia University recently partnered with the New York City Health Department in detecting foodborne illnesses and outbreaks in New York City restaurants based on keywords in Yelp reviews. In addition to calls to 311 (a non-emergency phone number that is used to find information as well as register complaints), and reports from health care providers, the NYC Health Department has used a system developed by Columbia University’s Department of Computer Science to track foodborne illnesses based upon reviews left on the popular Yelp website. Launched in 2012, this computer system tracks foodborne illnesses based upon the identification of particular keywords that appear specifically in Yelp restaurant reviews. This implementation has helped NYC health department staff identify 1,500 complaints of foodborne illness in New York City each year, for a total of over 8,500 cases since July 2012. Both Columbia University and The New York City Health Department plan to expand this to include other social media sources such as Twitter, which was added to the system in November 2016. Without this system, some individuals may not report their symptoms, and many incidents of foodborne illness might otherwise go unnoticed and/or unreported. Professors of Computer Science at Columbia University Luis Gravano and Daniel Hsu stated that “Effective information extraction regarding foodborne illness from social media is of high importance  – online restaurants review sites are popular and many people are more likely to discuss food poisoning incidents in such sites [rather] than on official government channels.”

You Are What You Eat: The Implications of Blockchain Technology

With increased emphasis being placed on identifying the source(s) of foodborne pathogens and subsequent efforts to eradicate or diminish their threat, perhaps no recent technological emergence is as great as the blockchain revolution. It is revolutionary because the word itself implies great change, and blockchain technology offers transparency for consumers and brings huge advantages for individuals within the supply chain. For food producers, attempts to tamper with a food item can be immediately identified and prevented before the food reaches its destination via the blockchain. For grocery retailers, if a potentially contaminated food product appears on their shelves, the stores can identify and remove on the offending “batch” items. Frequent batch recalls can be extremely costly to retailers. And for consumers, blockchain offers the reassurance that the food that they consume is exactly what the label says it is.Additionally, the blockchain can take “the power of information” out of huge corporate food producers and place it squarely into the hands of the individual consumer. By using a simple QR code and a smartphone, consumers can scan a package at the point of sale and receive an instant and complete history of the food item’s journey from farm to table without having to differentiate true from false claims of authenticity. As for potential foodborne pathogen outbreaks, imagine having the ability to detect the source of contamination within seconds rather than days or weeks.

With the social, economic, and political impacts of foodborne illnesses in the US, it becomes almost effortless to realize how sustained research is essential to individuals. As consumers, awareness and proactivity regarding our food sources is equally essential, and being armed with information is critical. Here at MakeFoodSafe, we will keep you informed of relevant research in food safety for your and your family’s protection.

By: Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writers (Non-Lawyer)