February 7, 2009

Making food safer through technology


January 30, 2009

Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, melamine contamination – it seems like every other week we have something else to fear about our food.

In 2008 the bacterial infection listeriosis caused the deaths of 20 Canadians and made over 50 others sick. In that same year melamine-contaminated milk in China made nearly 300,000 people sick and killed at least six infants.

The latest bacterial outbreak of salmonella-contaminated peanuts in the United States has made over 500 people sick and claimed the lives of seven people. Mass recalls of products containing the contaminated peanuts have been initiated on both sides of the border.

So, is it possible to provide a safe food supply? More rigorous cleaning regimes and higher inspection standards for food-processing plants will go a long way, but it’s possible these measures will still not be good enough.

Here are a few other suggestions on how to make our food supply safer.

GERM-KILLING NANO-PAINT: Titanium dioxide is an anti-microbial metal found in household items such as toothpaste, sunscreen and paint, and even makes skim milk more palatable. When engineered on the nano-scale, titanium dioxide displays some unique properties when exposed to ultraviolet light. The UV light causes an oxidation reaction which not only kills bacteria on the nano-paint’s surface but also removes impurities and toxic compounds in the air.

On surfaces, the compound disinfects twice as effectively as chlorine and 1.5 times as effectively as ozone. Just pick up a gallon of nano-paint, apply to a surface, open the curtains and voila, it cleans the air in your house and any surfaces coated in the compound.

Generally the coatings last anywhere from three to 10 years, depending on where they are used. In Japan, handrails are coated in the stuff to keep the surface sanitized and free from grime buildup from cars and industry.

This coating has useful prospects for food processing plants, where hard-to-reach areas in machinery can be cleaned by simply running a UV light over them. UV light can penetrate deep into the machinery where liquid cleansers may not.

Even Time magazine has jumped on board, rating a cement containing photo-catalyzing titanium dioxide one of its top 50 inventions of 2008.

The cement accelerates the rate at which smog is broken down, reducing smog in the air. It also keeps buildings made of the stuff cleaner, making them more resistant to grime build-up.

LISTERIA-EATING MICRO-ORGANISMS: Bacteriophages are the most abundant micro-organisms on Earth. They are harmless to humans, animals and plants but deadly to bacteria.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved Listex-P100 bacteriophage is a picky eater and only has a taste for the deadly listeriosis bacteria. The bacteriophage is used in the U.S. as an additive to certain foods susceptible to listeriosis, such as cheese. Since the phage only devours listeriosis, it doesn’t interrupt the other beneficial bacteria used in the process.

URBAN GARDENS: Another option is to grow some of your own fruits and vegetables. All you need is a small raised plot or even a couple of window boxes.

There’s no mystery about what is sprayed on the food you grow yourself and you can ensure that the water irrigating your crops is clean and free of contamination.

BUY LOCAL: Buying products from small, local farms reduces the risk of mass contamination by bacteria or chemicals. Buying from local sources also makes tracking any potential contamination easier.

Short of growing all our food in a lab, there is really no way to guarantee our food supply is 1oo-per-cent safe.

But thorough cleaning of fruits and vegetables, cooking meat to the proper temperature and knowing where food comes from will help ensure we don’t get sick.

Cassie Williams is the Halifax Commoner's weekly science columnist.

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