Health dangers like Listeria outbreaks and bacteria are a major cause of concern for food and beverage-related companies. Contaminated food is particularly dangerous for infants, the elderly, pregnant women (possibly resulting in miscarriages or stillbirths), and people with weakened immune systems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that, each year, 1 in 6 Americans are sickened after consuming contaminated foods or beverages. More than 250 different foodborne diseases have been described. Most of these diseases are infections, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can be foodborne.1
Serious illness or death can result from tainted food — at least three deaths resulted from Listeria-contaminated Blue Bell ice cream this year.2 Caramel apples stricken with Listeria killed at least five people in 2014.3
Listeria bacteria can be found in raw meats and vegetables, raw milk and cheeses and other foods made from unpasteurized milk, as well as in cooked or processed foods such as soft cheeses, smoked seafood, processed meats.
Part of the problem is that bacteria such as Listeria is very difficult to control. Once it contaminates a facility, it can be very difficult to eradicate. According to FoodSafety.gov, Listeria is unlike many other germs because it can grow even in the cold temperature of the refrigerator. Listeria is killed by cooking and pasteurization.4
Nanotechnology researchers are exploring ways to keep our food safe to eat. Nanotechnology researchers are exploring ways to keep our food safe to eat. Chemists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with a cheap, portable sensor able to detect gases emitted by rotting meat, which allows consumers to determine whether the meat in the grocery store case or in their home refrigerator is safe to eat. The sensor is made up of chemically modified carbon nanotubes, and could be deployed in “smart packaging” that allows for more accurate safety information than the expiration date on the package.5
A team from Wayne State University in Detroit has been experimenting with natural, safe, and alternative antimicrobials to reduce bacterial contamination. Plant essential oils (from plants such as thyme, oregano, and clove) are known to have a strong antimicrobial effect, but have low solubility in water so their use in food protection is limited. The researchers are formulating oil nanoemulsions to increase the solubility and stability of essential oils, which will then enhance their antimicrobial activity. The research revealed the ability of oregano oil to inhibit common foodborne bacteria, such as E. coli O157, Salmonella, and Listeria, in artificially contaminated fresh lettuce. The team wants to look into a nanodelivery system for the oil. Nanoemulsions could improve the rate of release compared to other nanoformulations, and the ability of the food grade surfactant to wet the surface of the produce.6
Nanotechnology is also used to protect crops and plant life. A plant pathologist from the University of Florida discovered an economical and eco-friendly way to combat the phytophthora, a plant-destroying fungus that attacks the leaves and roots of plants (such as tomatoes) and trees. Silver nanoparticles produced with an extract of wormwood (an herb with strong antioxidant properties) are able to stop several strains of the fungus, and have not shown any adverse effects on plant growth. The researcher says that, since the nanoparticles have multiple ways of inhibiting fungus growth, the chances of pathogens developing resistance to them are slim.7
The CDC has identified reducing foodborne diseases as a “winnable battle,” and gives tips and evidence-based strategies that can be implemented in order to improve the public’s health.8 Additionally, Food Manufacturing offers a Q&A on how food companies should properly address a recall.9