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  • A Weapon in the War Against Microbes  0 comments
    Jun 18, 2010 12:56 PM
    How significant are food-borne illnesses? A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that these illnesses cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year. The CDC report went on to say that 76 million cases of food-borne disease occur each year in the United States. The great majority of these cases are mild and cause symptoms for only a day or two. However, the more serious cases cause 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year according to the CDC report.
     
    Is the food we eat really safe? The first major food contamination event occurred in 1998 when Sara Lee recalled 35 million pounds of various meat products. Then all was quiet for awhile. However, the number of serious contamination events over the last few years has raised the question again of food safety. Some of the major food recalls over the past few years include:
     
    • In 2006, E. coli contamination was found in packaged spinach that made 300 people sick in 26 states and caused 3 deaths.
    • In 2007, Tyson recalled 40,000 pounds of beef in 12 states due to E. coli contamination.
    • In 2008, Topps Meats recalled 21 million pounds of beef due to E. coli contamination that resulted in the closing of that company. In that year, there were also recalls of lettuce and spinach produce due to salmonella contamination.
    • In 2009, King Nut had a massive recall for salmonella-contaminated peanuts which resulted in 399 cases in 42 states. In late 2009 and early 2010, there were over 2.8 million pounds of meat products recalled.
     
    In addition, the CDC studies reported a 6% to 9% annual increase in Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, or MRSA, contamination in the United States, with 278,000 people hospitalized for MRSA-related infections in 2007. What is needed in this environment is a device that can identify microbial contamination faster, cheaper and more efficiently. 
     
    Detecting Microbes
     
    Currently, many in the food industry are still using methods we learned in high school biology. These involve 'scraping' a culture in a Petri dish and then in 48-72 hours a lab can tell if and what type of bacteria is present.
     
    Some firms in the food industry are using more modern methods to detect food-borne bacteria. These include molecular whole-cell and surface recognition, enzyme/substrate approaches, and nucleic acid-related techniques.
     
    The most popular method is DNA testing known as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) diagnostic systems. PCR systems typically perform an identification of bacteria in 36 to 48 hours with greater than 90 percent accuracy and at a cost of about $10.
     
    There are some newer systems that can complete the whole process in about 10 hours but at a cost of as high as $45 per test and at a capital cost exceeding $40,000.
     
    Finally, there is another method for detecting bacteria. It is a proprietary system recently developed by a small California firm – Micro Identification Technologies Inc. (OTCBB: MMTC). Its system utilizes the well-established method of light scattering.
     
    In operation, a cultured sample is put into a vial containing filtered water, and then placed into the system. At this point, a laser beam shines on the vial, generating a multi-angle light scattering pattern.
     
    Thirty-five detectors spread over five arcs gather scattering pattern intensity data. Keep in mind that scattering patterns are unique for each type of micro-organism. A definitive identification is effected by comparing the pattern with the system's database. Twenty-three species of micro-organisms can now be identified with this technique.
     
    The company's method has two distinct advantages over existing methods: the low cost, at about 10 cents a test, and the very rapid identification time, at less than 10 minutes.
     
    Micro Identification Technologies received validation on its system from the respected AOAC International Institute and now is actively approaching the food safety arena. Possible future market areas for this system include drinking water, clinical diagnostics and pharmaceuticals.
     
    The goal, of course, is to prevent contaminated food from ever reaching the consumer. Cost-effective, accurate systems to detect bacteria will help achieve that goal. It will not solve all the problems, but it will certainly reduce the amount of illnesses caused by food-borne micro-organisms and thereby reduce health care costs.
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