As an ex-New Yorker, I’ve eaten in some questionable places and subsequently fallen victim to food poisoning more times than I care to remember. But food safety can no longer be guaranteed by the quality of restaurant or supermarket that you select.
As more and more of our food supply is sourced globally, food safety has become a major health concern as antibiotic overuse and super strains of bacteria are encroaching on our ability to provide a safe food supply, and regulation and enforcement are increasingly difficult to coordinate.
If we look back in history, Alexander Fleming, creator of penicillin, warned the public that overuse of the medication could lead to bacteria mutating and becoming resistant to penicillin. His theory was proven when strains of bacteria resistant to penicillin were discovered only three months after proving effective. The warning, ignored since 1945, now has become something real.
The use of antibiotics in raising beef, pork and poultry continues despite warnings and incentives to reduce or stop the use. Now the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in light of the recent salmonella outbreak in 20-states, has announced the discovery of salmonella strains that prove resistant to the antibiotics normally used to kill the bacteria.
The salmonella outbreak began during the federal government shutdown, which slowed reactions by the CDC and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Both departments suspended diagnostics and food safety inspections due to reduced staffing. Though no recall went out, a new warning about the overuse of antibiotics in meat production spread through the country. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) both stress the importance of cooking chicken to 165° F to kill the salmonella bacterium before eating.
The chicken in the most recent outbreak came from three processing plants in California, and the outbreak affected 20-states. More than 300 people contracted salmonella poisoning and doctors report a resistance to antibiotic treatments normally used to kill the bacteria. The CDC diagnostics and food safety reports show resistance to gentamicin, chloramphenicol, ampicillin, kanamycin, streptomycin and streptomycin.
Increased resistance to antibiotics has moved the food industry to explore the science of diagnostics and genomics to aid in the fight against bacterial contamination.
Research projects that look to “reprogram” genes within organisms such as E. coli are exciting the industry. For example, there are studies that show salmonella strains now resistant to antibiotics will not recognize the threat of a genome that has been recoded. To the salmonella bacteria, everything looks the same. However, the engineered group of organisms will attach to the bacterium and destroy them before they can mutate.
Also, altered bacterium made to bind to polymers can lengthen the effectiveness of certain medications by keeping it active in the blood stream longer. Additionally, the recoded genomes can point out strains of salmonella, listeria and E. coli not known to science.
The recoding of an organism's genes has great potential to open new sciences and new opportunities for companies seeking to invest in food safety. Continued vigilance in the way we use antibiotics, coupled with progress in finding new high-tech methods to improve food safety utilizing the latest diagnostic and genomic technologies, will ultimately help provide a cost-effective and efficient approach to ensuring the safety of our food supply today and into the future.