Foodborne infections caused by bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens affect around 40 million individuals in the United States each year. Food contamination is frequently underestimated, although it causes 420,000 fatalities each year. This figure indicates more persons than Iceland’s whole population.
Before it reaches our plates, food passes through a variety of channels after being grown on a farm. It is nearly impossible to keep it from getting contaminated. However, according to a press release, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario have discovered a way to free food of disease-causing bacteria before it enters your stomach.
They created a food decontamination spray using food-safe microscopic beads containing bacteriophages (viruses that kill bacteria). During the investigation, the researchers claim they were able to free-lettuce & meat of E. coli 0157, a common food-borne pathogen that infects the human intestine and causes health problems such as diarrhoea.
Phages have always been there
The use of bacteriophages as disinfectants is not a novel concept. According to the authors of the current study, prior to the discovery of the first antibiotic (penicillin) in 1928, there was a lot of research focused on using phages against bacterial infection was going-on.
However, most scientists lost interest in this research when antibiotics hit the market and soon became the solution to overcoming bacterial diseases. The popularity of antibiotics can be guessed at by the fact that the antibiotics industry alone was valued at $42 billion in 2021.
Although phages have lost their importance as antibacterial agents of choice, they have never been forgotten because they have been able to prove their worth.
For example, in 2021, scientists discovered that pathogens that thrive in hospital and commercial building plumbing networks may be removed more efficiently if phages were utilised as disinfectants alongside commonly used chemicals. Furthermore, phage research has grown as a result of the recent rise in antibiotic resistance in bacteria.
Using phage army to decontaminate food
Interestingly, the current study reveals a completely different phage-based approach. Which would you rather, get sick and then take an antibiotic to heal your health, or spraying your food before you get sick? Using phage as a food decontamination spray could be the most convenient and effective way to stop bacterial infections in our food.
Numerous microbeads are released by the spray. Each one is around 20 microns (20 x 10-6 m) in diameter and contains millions of bacteriophages. In essence, each microbead has an army of bacteria-eating warriors. “When we spray it on food, we literally gather billions of mini-soldiers to guard our food from bacterial infection,” said Lei Tian, study lead author and McMaster University researcher.
Tian and his colleagues tested their spray on lettuce & meat, successfully decontaminating the food from E. coli 0157. They believe their spray can also protect people from food-borne illnesses caused by Listeria & Salmonella infections. In terms of food safety, the authors claim that phages do not alter the flavour or texture of a food item.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also allowed the use of phages in food products. Interestingly, unlike antibiotics, which kill both good & harmful bacteria, phages can be designed to attack only certain types of bacteria. That is, the phages released by the spray will only harm pathogens and not other microorganisms beneficial to human health and flavour.
Furthermore, this spray can be used to clean water, food packaging, and even agricultural equipment in addition to disinfecting food. The researchers are currently testing its spray for usage in the treatment of injuries and wounds.
These testing will help to confirm the product’s safety. However, it is unclear when the spray will be commercially available.
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.