Food poisoning — most of us have had it at some point or another in our lives. Many people think of it as a fact of life — as something that will unavoidably happen to them from time to time. However, researchers are taking steps to ensure that this isn’t the case.
Remember the outbreak of E. coli in spinach that occurred in September and October of this year? That’s a prime example of food contamination getting out of control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 199 cases of people getting sick in connection with the tainted spinach, three of whom died.
Now, food poisoning is a broad term that refers to many different illnesses caused by microbes on the surface of or inside the food that you eat. The effects of these bacteria, viruses, or parasites on your body can range from mild to lethal. Many us of don’t get medical attention when suffering from food poisoning; however, the CDC estimates that 76 million Americans get sick every year from food-borne illnesses.
Three of the most common disease-triggering microbes are bacteria — “campylobacter,” “salmonella,” and “E. coli 0157:H7.” The fourth is a virus — the “Norwalk virus.” Some of the common symptoms of an infection by any of these nasty bugs include fever, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and sometimes vomiting.
An example of a serious condition caused by food poisoning would be “hemolytic uremic syndrome,” which occurs in three percent to five percent of E. coli cases. It can lead to anemia, bleeding, and kidney failure. This syndrome occurred in 33 patients in the recent spinach E. coli outbreak.
With these types of occurrences, it’s good to know that scientists are looking out for our best interests — and there are two recent findings that could lead to new products, which could help protect our health.
A U.K. research team recently tested a new product that was developed by a European consortium. The product is a spray that contains a “phage” — this is actually a virus! Not to worry — this virus only targets specific types of bacteria by infecting and destroying them.
The researchers sprayed 300 chicken carcasses with the virus spray. The results were quite spectacular, really — salmonella was reduced 1,000 times, compared to the usual way of cleaning (just with water). This virus spray will obviously be of great use in locations where chicken is prepared and packaged. The manufacturers of the spray are now working on a product that will be able to kill off different kinds of bacteria in one shot.
The other recent development focuses on fruit and vegetables rather than meat. A U.S./Spain joint effort has spawned an interesting new product: edible coatings to protect food from nasty microbes. These coatings consist of a film made from fruits or veggies containing a natural essential oil.
In the latest study, the researchers used apple-based films, which were infused with one of three essential oils — oregano, lemongrass, or cinnamon. When tested on E. coli bacteria, oil of oregano was found to work best in killing the bad bacteria. When added to the film-forming solution, a concentration of 0.1% oregano oil worked after three minutes. Lemongrass and cinnamon oils also worked, but at five times greater concentration.
It seems that these wraps could be very effective in protecting produce from the dangerous bacteria it might encounter all the way from the field to your table. This means a decreased chance of food-borne illness, plus a longer shelf life for produce — and all of this can be done with mostly natural substances. However, there’s more research to be done on this concept. This is just a small part of a three-year study on different antimicrobial products and their effectiveness on a wide range of disease-causing bacteria.