Microbial contamination has become a serious public safety issue in every aspect of the $3.2 trillion international food market. This is exemplified by Cargill’s recent 36 million pound recall of ground turkey, and the Jensen Farms Listeria outbreak, which compromised the safety of cantaloupes across the country and was heralded as the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years.

These incidences are just the latest examples of a growing number of massive public health scares in the food industry, and they point to fundamental problems that need to be addressed industry-wide in order to prevent future outbreaks.

Currently, one in six people get sick from eating tainted products each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This number is much too high, given the technology and the resources that exist today to provide safe food and beverages to the public.

Contamination is indeed in the spotlight, and food producers and processors are investing in preventive measures and restructuring systems to gain control and protect their interests to avoid public health incidences that result not only in public relations’ crises but major losses in business and subsequent recovery costs. Brand damage is a whole other story. As a result, the industry is going through a major shift where processors are re-focusing their efforts to include better methods to prevent outbreaks and identify the sources of contaminants.

There are a number of new innovative technologies and solutions in the fight against these problems, but the wrong solution could prove to be a short-term fix, and actually exacerbate the problem over time. Over use of antibiotics in livestock, for example, can give rise to resistant strains of bacteria, which are harder to kill and more lethal if ingested.

As a result, food producers need to weigh their options carefully and really start to re-examine many of the standards and best practices that have been accepted for many years.

A Toxic Problem: Why Poisonous Chemicals Don’t Work
Poisonous chemicals are not solving the problem—yet, for years they have been the industry standard. Specifically, food producers rely on bleach and ammonia-based chemicals to clean and disinfect processing areas in an effort to eliminate dangerous pathogens such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella and others. However, because of their high toxicity, use of these chemicals around food is inherently limited. If toxic chemicals contaminate a food source or product, the result could be as dangerous as the pathogens they are designed to eliminate.

Antimicrobial agents are subject to regulation by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) either singly or jointly, depending upon the use. These two agencies closely regulate residues that may occur on a processed food using chemicals in the disinfection and sanitization processes. Simply put, the more toxic the chemical used the more stringent the guidelines are for use.

As a result, food producers have developed a range of processes and procedures to use toxic chemicals safely and within EPA and FDA guidelines within their processing facilities, which in many cases limits their efficacy. This might include diluting a chemical, limiting its use, or rinsing and removing it too early in the process, allowing residual bacterial or viral growth.

Why Poisonous Chemicals Are No Longer Necessary
A number of innovative biotechnologies on the market today offer highly effective alternatives to traditional chemical formulas, proving that products don’t need to be toxic to be effective in combating microbiological contamination.

One newcomer that’s disrupting the current environment is the molecule silver dihydrogen citrate (SDC), an antimicrobial technology, proven effective at killing a wide range of pathogens, such as Staphylococcus, Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and others, yet without the toxic side effects of other chemicals typically assigned to this job. This silver ion-based molecule is a platform technology showing up in several applications: as an anti-fungal for medical treatments, a chemical alternative to Triclosan, a food-contact surface sanitizer and a hard surface disinfectant among other applications. SDC-based disinfectants are registered with the EPA, which has given SDC the lowest toxicity rating in its class. Yet even with this low toxicity rating, SDC has kill rates against dangerous pathogens, equivalent to and, in some cases, even higher than the harsh chemicals which the food industry has had to settle for in the past, allowing for a false sense of security within the processing plants.
SDC has also been determined Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), according to criteria established by the FDA, for use as a biocide on food processing equipment, machinery and utensils. In addition, recent tests results show the SDC molecule can effectively kill E. coli O157 and other Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria on beef when used as a spray and a dip, as well as when incorporated directly into ground beef.

This all goes to show that there are innovative new solutions available now and more on the horizon. If we’re smart enough to embrace them, solutions like SDC will create less toxic and more effective methods to help control food supply contamination from farm to fork.

Image: SDC kills microorganisms by two modes of action: 1) The silver ion deactivates structural and metabolic membrane proteins, leading to microbial death; 2) The microbes view SDC as a food source, allowing the silver ion to enter the microbe. Once inside the organism, the silver ion denatures the DNA, which halts the microbe’s ability to replicate and leads to its death. This dual action makes SDC highly and quickly effective against a broad spectrum of microbes.

We need to recognize that our food production processes are compromised, systems are broken and change is imminent. By applying non-toxic yet effective antimicrobial solutions, we can take one small and easy step to raise the industry standard for safer products that enter the public environment. Dramatic outcomes don’t require drastic change. Innovation has made this possible. The solutions exist and the hour is at hand.

Tom Myers is a 20-year veteran of the food industry and the executive vice president, sales and marketing of PURE Bioscience, Inc,. a biotechnology company based in California.