As the focus of the anti-industry groups has shifted from angry attacks over contamination threats to a relentless drumbeat about environmental impact of livestock production, the food-safety issues that have destroyed dozens of companies over massive product recalls and food-borne outbreaks in the last 2 years have receded from public scrutiny.

Yet the threat of microbial pathogens in the food supply, while dramatically lower than it was just a decade ago, still affects millions of people annually.

Very negatively.

Take salmonella, for example. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the ubiquitous bacteria are estimated to cause a million foodborne illnesses in the United States every year, with 19,000 hospitalizations as a result. In people with weakened immune systems or in young children and the elderly, salmonella infections can be fatal, causing some 380 deaths a year.

That’s about the same number of fatalities annually that are caused by accidents involving ATVs, those four-wheel vehicles that advertising always depicts bombing along a forest trail or ripping up the beach somewhere.

Haven’t heard any protests about those deaths, but nevertheless, any serious illness or death is one too many.

Now, there are dangers inherent in all raw foods — produce, dairy, meat, poultry eggs — you name it. Unless basic precautions are maintained in households or at potlucks or on other occasions where food is being prepared, a raft of microbial pathogens can cause all kinds of problems.

No amount of technological interventions can create risk-free food — not unless we’re all willing to eat nothing but the sterilized “nutrition” that astronauts in movies always seem to be eating. Which begs the question: Humans in the future have the technology to travel beyond the galaxy, but they didn’t progress beyond a diet of edible paste squeezed out of plastic tube?

Back on Earth, we prefer the taste and texture of fresh foods cooked to order, and thus contamination is always a risk — especially in ground meat and poultry products. That may be about to change, however, and that is good news for all of animal agriculture.

Newly publicized research from University of Nevada-Reno may provide the means for processors to reduce salmonella in ground meat and poultry by as much as 90%.

For the record? That’s a lot.

Promising new intervention

The project, led by Amilton de Mello, an assistant professor at the university, was announced at the annual meeting of the American Meat Science Association’s Reciprocal Meat Conference in San Angelo, Texas this week. The technique uses bacteriophages, which are described as “natural bacterial predators” commonly found in the environment. Phages, as they’re known, are generally harmless to people and animals.

By utilizing specific phages, de Mello and his research team destroyed four different kinds of salmonella in test batches of round meat.

“On the final ground meat products, there was a 10-fold decrease of salmonella,” de Mello was quoted in a university news release. “The results are very encouraging, and we’re hoping this can be adopted by the meat industry to increase food safety.”

The process is actually quite straightforward. The researchers added four types of salmonella to refrigerated meat and poultry trim, then they applied a treatment of Myoviridae bacteriophages before grinding and testing the product. The phages then did their job, invading the cells of the salmonella bacteria and destroying them.

De Mello noted that the bacteriophage project was part of “broad research program” that is focused on farm-to-table interventions and addresses risk management measures from pre-slaughter to post-harvest to pathogen control during further processing and packaging.

That’s all great for the scientists attending AMSA’s conference, but it’s way too “inside baseball” for ordinary consumers. But there is potential traction to be gained with the sophisticated application of phage technology to reduce the food-safety risks posed by bacterial pathogens.

At the end of the day, however, industry’s message must remain one of prevention and precaution, not just from the farm to the plant, but more importantly, from the supermarket to the kitchen.

No amount of anti-microbial technology can provide fail-safe protection against cross-contamination or undercooking of raw food products.

Unless we’re willing to enjoy our meals out of those space-worthy plastic tubes. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.