New research underway seeks to determine how and where bacteria hide in food processing plants so that they can be eliminated, to the benefit of public health and the bottom line of food companies.

The project involves scientists at Texas A&M, Stanford University, and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service U.S. Meat Animal Research Center’s pilot meat processing facility in Clay Center, NE. Their work has the backing of a $479,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

While the project could ultimately benefit food facilities from fresh produce processing plants to candy makers, the researchers will be taking an extra close look at the meat industry.

Led by Sapna Chitlapilly Dass, a faculty member in Texas A&M’s Department of Animal Science, the team will be looking at “hotspots” that easily harbor biofilms, also known as slime. Dass and the other researchers are trying to figure out not only where bacteria like Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli O157: H7 are hiding, but what sanitizers they have become resistant to.

“In the processing industry,” Dass said, “They hide in areas such as the back of conveyor belts or drains, which have poor accessibility for sanitation and therefore result in biofilms with greater sanitizer tolerance and antimicrobial resistance. We want to control food contamination by investigating the biofilm hotspots.”  

Drains are predisposed to develop biofilms, because of the nature of their function, and have a natural pathogen distribution system — microscopic droplets and other fluids going down drains and standing liquids at drain sites can easily carry bacteria to foods and food contact surfaces. That kind of contamination is dangerous in more than one way.

“Reducing contamination of our meat supply by pathogens such as E. coli O157: H7 and Salmonella will reduce recalls that trigger significant financial losses, but more importantly will reduce the incidence of human illness and death associated with contaminated food,” said Cliff Lamb, Ph.D. and head of Texas A&M’s Department of Animal Science.

“The development of new strategies for controlling accidental contamination of food with these pathogens will have significant impacts on human health and reduce economic losses.”

While examining drains and production and packaging equipment the research team expects to confirm that multiple species of foodborne pathogens live in biofilms. That helps makes containment and removal of the pathogens complicated. For example, certain strains of Salmonella that are present in biofilm may be susceptible to sanitizers, but others can survive certain chemicals and other sanitizing substances.

“One segment of the study will compare and characterize diversity, stability, and resilience of the food pathogens and meat processing drain mixed-species biofilm in response to commonly used meat processing sanitizers,” according to a statement from Texas A&M. “Another segment of the study will examine whether spatial organization and location of the food-pathogen within the multi-species biofilm impacts sanitizer tolerance.”

The project will also evaluate how foodborne pathogens are detached and transmitted through a food processing facility. Dass stresses the double-pronged value of the project with positive outcomes expected for public health and reducing economic costs associated with foodborne illnesses.

“. . . designing low-cost sustainable materials for drainage systems with microscale surface patterns that can prevent dispersal of pathogens to food (is one goal),” she said.

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