Microbiologists from the Food and Drug Administration may have found a new way to protect fruits and vegetables from contamination with Salmonella.
Eric Brown and colleagues at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition have found that a particular group of naturally occurring bacteria that can wipe out the dreaded pathogen, at least in laboratory settings.
“The beauty is that we take something alive and organic and put it back into the field, and by itself, it will kill other bacteria. We’re right on the edge of this,” Brown told scientists at conference on held last month in France.
What is more, the as-yet unclassified “good” bacteria can also destroy listeria and E. coli O15:H7, 2 other bacterial pathogens that frequently cause food-borne illnesses. The only bug that seems immune to the new hero is vibrio, the critter that contaminates oysters and other seafood.
Salmonella causes 1.4 million cases of food-borne illnesses and 500 deaths a year in the US, according to the CDC. Most people recover spontaneously from the infection, but the young, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are susceptible to severe complications.
The bacterium used to be associated outbreaks of food-borne illnesses caused by eggs and poultry, but for unknown reasons, it has been found increasingly in association with outbreaks caused by fresh fruit and vegetables.
Last year, a salmonella outbreak was initially attributed to tomatoes, although tainted Mexican jalapeño peppers turned out to be the cause. The mistake cost the tomato industry $150 million, and consumer demand for tomatoes has still has not returned to pre-outbreak levels.
By the way, Brown’s “good” bacteria appear in early testing to cause humans no harm. Brown and his colleagues plan to test them on tomatoes grown in research settings during the winter. If that goes well, further testing in the field would follow.