Risk assessment method developed for food botulism

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Clostridium botulinum, Botulism

UK scientists are offering food processors risk assessments to help
them determine how to keep their products from becoming botulism
producing factories.

The assessments could be particularly valuable for those using new production methods to meet the increasing demand for fresh and minimally processed foods. The assessments are an outcome of new research by scientists at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) could help them determine how to keep their products from becoming botulism producing factories. The study tracked the development of botulism, stage by stage. While there has not been a case of botulism in the UK for the past 20 years, changing production methods and the demand for fresh and minimally processed foods has opened up the possibility for itsre-occurrence, said Gary Barker, an IFR food scientist involved with the study. "It is a big deal for the food industry," he told FoodProductionDaily.com. "Because it is so deadly even one case of botulism can be so significant. It could be devastatingto their own business and to food producers in general. This is why understanding and controlling botulism is crucial." Barker noted there has been outbreaks of botulism within the EU, mainly within the bloc's newest members. Most of the cases occur in Poland, mainly due to home canning operations. With the increasing emphasis by consumers and regulators on food safety, and the prospect of costly recalls and fines, processors are constantly on the lookout for quicker and better ways ofpreventing bacterial contamination of their products. Botulism is a severe and often deadly disease caused by toxin-producing spores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. The spores remain harmless until they find a suitable, anaerobic environmentin which to germinate. After germination, there is a short time lag until rapid cell division begins and the food becomes poisonous. Barker says the IFR's findings have immediate practical benefits. "This fundamental science can be incorporated into real risk assessments for real products," he said. "Food companies can approach us for microbial risk assessments ofspecific products based on a model we have developed that reflects on the variability of spore lag time." The process involves an entire risk assessment of the food producer's methods and the sourcing of ingredients for an individual product. The assessment would also include investigating thepreservatives, additives, acidity and other parameters used in the production process. "It is looking at ways to optimise the whole production process, including costs," Barker said. Several food companies have already approached the IFR to discuss doing a botulism risk assessment for their products. Some are in the UK, others are from the rest of Europe, but he declined toname them. Scientist Sandra Stringer, the lead author of the newly published IFR study, said the group set out to unravel the various stages within the lag time leading to the production of the deadlyneurotoxin. "This is like looking at the time between loading a gun and actually pulling the trigger," she stated in commenting on her report. The IFR study is the first to investigate each stage within lag time and the relationship between them. A single spore of Clostridium botulinum can lead to neurotoxin production in food. Previousstudies have found that the lower the number of spores, the more difficult it is to predict growth patterns. Spores are the time travellers of the bacterial world, Stringer said. They are produced at times of environmental stress and exist in a state of suspended animation. In the protective pod of aspore coat, they resist temperature extremes and dehydration and can survive for millions of years until conditions are ripe for germination. However, prediction of lag time has until now been based on the belief that the first spore to germinate will be the first to produce actively dividing cells and start toxin production, she said. The scientists studied each stage in detail is by using microscopy and image analysis. They developed a novel imaging system and made microscopic observations of 1,739 spores. They tracked theirprogress through germination and rehydration to shedding the spore coat, emerging as a young cell, maturing and finally beginning cell division. "We found that each stage from germination to growth is variable between individual spores and none of the stages are related. Germination is therefore not a good predictor to use in riskassessment work as it underestimates the time to growth and toxin production," Stringer said. External links to companies or organisations mentioned in this story: Institute of Food Research

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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