Animal sciences Professor John Sofos was addressing food safety issues in his laboratory long before Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreaks raised public concern. After the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box incident, in which undercooked hamburgers were found to carry the pathogen, E. coli O157:H7, Sofos's research received more attention. Producers, processors, government agencies, and the food service industry all needed to know how they could ensure the safety of Colorado's main agricultural product beef.
Among other things, steam-vacuum the carcass, Sofos suggested. His research had revealed that thorough washing and decontamination procedures can reduce incidence of pathogens like E. coli O157:H7, which may be introduced on the surface of carcasses from the environment and then contaminate other foods as well. "For meat, chemical de-hairing of the animal before hide removal and steam vacuuming of the carcass after hide removal will reduce contamination," says Sofos. With colleagues Keith Belk, John Scanga, Glenn Schmidt, and Gary Smith as well as several graduate students and research associates Sofos has found that spraying carcasses with high-pressure hot water or organic, lactic or acetic acid also works.
Sofos studies some of the most common foodborne pathogenic bacteria, including E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella . He seeks to control pathogens in beef, in ready-to-eat products, such as hot dogs, bologna, jerky, and dried fruits.
"We work with producers and processors, as well as the government, so that the work we do can be applied," says Sofos. "We also have a consumer education component. "
Professor and Colorado Extension food science and human nutrition specialist Pat Kendall serves as a critical link for getting Sofos's research results in front of the people that will benefit most. Complications arising from foodborne illness, such as dehydration, pneumonia, kidney failure, and miscarriage, result in 5, 000 deaths in the United States annually, notes Kendall. "People with the highest risk are those whose immune systems aren't able to fight the disease. " That includes pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and people with chronic disease and HIV.
Kendall focuses her education efforts on reaching those who prepare or serve food to others and people who are at increased risk of foodborne illness due to compromised immune systems. Teaching food service workers is one of her top priorities, since they prepare food for any number of different people. The fact that Americans now eat more than half of their meals away from home makes it even more critical that restaurant and cafeteria workers follow food safety procedures. Recently, Kendall also began working with growers and vendors at farmers' markets to teach them safe and sanitary preparation of food samples.
Kendall finds that the food industry is especially receptive to Cooperative Extension's food safety training programs. "The industry people have a lot on the line. I find that they're always looking for ways to prepare food more safely, especially if it's something that also improves the quality. "
Procedures tested in the laboratory, and which Kendall tries out on taste panels, often result in a better product. Take dried apples, for instance. Treating the fruit slices with ascorbic acid or lemon juice before drying enhances destruction of E. coli O157:H7 during drying, adds Vitamin C, and prevents discoloration.
Sofos and Kendall strive to stay on top of food safety issues. New pathogens continually emerge. Furthermore, some decontamination procedures may actually cause other, more resistant bacteria to surface. They're now studying competing pathogens to see how they behave, if they're a potential risk, and how they can be controlled. "It's important to recognize potential risks that may surface in the future and be prepared to deal with them," Sofos says.
Another factor that will escalate the need for better food safety in the future will be changing demographics. Within the next 50 years, the number of elderly in the United States is expected to double, to 80 million, with the bulk of that increase occurring as baby boomers age between now and 2030. "Food safety will be even more critical", says Sofos, "We have to be prepared to face known, as well as newly emerging pathogens."