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Texas A&M AgriLife study targets contamination hotspots in food processing

Texas A&M AgriLife study targets contamination hotspots in food processing

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Pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella can survive in many areas throughout the food supply chain, but a Texas A&M University professor is working to solve that problem.

Sapna Chitlapilly Dass, meat science research assistant professor in the A&M College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, told AgriLife Today that her study is focused on identifying “hotspots” of contamination throughout the food processing industry by finding out where pathogens survive so that they can be prevented or treated. By tracking hiding locations, Dass told AgriLife Today, the hotspots can be eliminated before theyinfect food. 

Foodborne pathogens form multi-species biofilms in food processing facilities, she said. A biofilm is an area where microorganisms gather and live within an envelope of film or slime. In residential settings, this is the slimy feeling of a kitchen sponge that was left out or a slick shower floor, she said. The biofilms develop in the processing industry in hard-to-clean areas like the back of conveyor belts or in drains. 

“A comprehensive understanding of foodborne pathogen dispersal processes from hotspots in food processing facilities and their underlying microbiological mechanisms is highly significant, as it will lead to powerful new approaches that will reduce the contamination of food with pathogens,” Dass said in AgriLife Today. 

Testing for the research will happen at A&M, Stanford University and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service U.S. Meat Animal Research Center’s pilot meat processing facility in Nebraska. 

Part of the study will require a comparison and characterization of diversity, stability and resilience of the food pathogens and the “multi-species meat processing drain biofilm” as they respond to meat processing sanitizers, according to AgriLife Today. The study, the article states, also will examine if things like the location of the food-pathogen within the multispecies biofilm affects sanitizer tolerance.

Later in the study, researchers will look at the detachment and transmission dynamics of food pathogens from biofilm to the food processing facility. Lastly, the article states, researchers will design materials for drainage systems with “microscale surface patterns” meant to keep pathogens from getting onto people’s food. 

Cliff Lamb, head of the Department of Animal Science, told AgriLife Today that he and others are excited about what the research will reveal that could improve food chain safety. 

He said the study focuses on how foodborne pathogens are protected and released into the food processing environment. Understanding this, he said, could help people create new strategies to control contamination of food with pathogens. 

Reducing contamination could lower the number of recalls and financial losses and prevent illness and death, he said. 

The study is made possible through a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant that was awarded this year. 

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