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UF food scientists call for new science in food safety

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Some University of Florida food scientists say U.S. food safety procedures need to get out of the 1960s and into the era of biotechnology.

Back then, America’s scientists devised a system to ensure astronauts’ food stayed safe. That system, called Hazard Analysis of Critical Point, became the U.S. industry standard.

HACCP (pronounced “hassip”) is largely based on choosing points during handling and processing to eliminate or reduce as many possible hazards from food. While the method has given America an unparalleled level of food safety, there are new options to explore.

Featuring articles from UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the new issue of the Journal of Current Opinion in Biotechnology focuses on applying recent scientific discoveries to food safety.

“We have to look at everything we know about the whole system,” said microbiologist Max Teplitski, who co-authored the journal’s lead editorial with food scientist Anita Wright. “And we know a lot more than we knew half a century ago. Recent food safety scares have shown us that maybe it’s time we started applying that knowledge.”

Topics such as biofilms and some aspects of genetics research are so new that they haven’t had time to be used in food safety systems, or need more study. Others, such as probiotics and stress-resistant bacteria, are slowly being integrated.

Some of the topics reviewed:

Stress-resistant bacteria — Bacteria can adapt to decontamination methods, such as heating. For example, a heat-resistant strain of Salmonella has become problematic for the almond industry.

Biofilms — Some bacteria, when under stress, clump together in a thick layer of protective goo. This extremely tough formation, called a biofilm, resists heat, cold and antibiotics.

Bacterial growth patterns — New research shows bacteria that can harm humans can also grow inside plants, instead of just on their surface, meaning that rinsing produce might not make it safe to eat.

Probiotics and live food –Bacterial growth research could be essential to promoting healthy bacteria in products like yogurt and specialty cheeses. For example, closely controlling active yogurt cultures may help produce products to help digestion in the elderly or very young.

Genetics — Much of the genetic work with food crops so far has focused on making things easier for farmers, such as insect-resistant crops. But the future of transgenic food will help consumers, geneticist Maria Gallo says.

Using genetics to boost a plant’s own defense mechanisms may allow researchers to enhance food safety with fewer chemicals applied on the way to the consumer. And transgenic food will offer extra nutrition and fewer allergens and toxins.

“But we need to develop a system in which we are very careful,” she said. “If you make a peanut without allergens, you have to be sure to get rid of all the allergens, or else you could make someone very sick. On the way to food safety, you have to be sure that you don’t become the problem yourself.”

Contacts:
Writer:  Stu Hutson 352-273-3569, stu@ufl.edu

Sources:
Max Teplitski, an assistant professor in microbiology, can be reached at 352-273-8189 or maxtep@ufl.edu.

Anita Wright, an associate professor in food science and human nutrition, can be reached at 352-392-1991 or acw@ufl.edu.

Maria Gallo, a molecular genetics professor, can be reached at 352-273-8124 or mgm@ufl.edu.

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