Bacteriophages: Viral hit squads target food pathogens

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Bacteria Listeria

You can drink them and eat them safely, but to food pathogens like
Listeria, bacteriophages are the viral hit squads of the
microscopic world.

With the increasing emphasis by consumers and regulators on food safety, and the prospect of costly recalls, fines and brand damage, processors are constantly on the lookout for quicker and cheaperways of preventing bacterial contamination of their products. For science startup EBI Food Safety, the microscopic bacteria eaters could be a real moneyspinner. They have the potential to be the next big technological advance in anti-bacterial agentsprocessors can use in ensuring their products do not leave the plant loaded with dangerous pathogens like Listeria, Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli. Bacteriophages, the Latin name for "bacteria eaters", offer a safe, non-chemical natural solution to killing bacteria on equipment and on the surfaces of food, EBI's chief executiveofficer, Mark Offerhaus told in an interview. The method is safe for humans and due to the phages reproduction rate does not require plants to shut down production for cleaning and disinfection of equipment. "Using nature is an elegant solution to ensuring food safety," he said from the company's headquarters in Netherlands. Bacteriophages are viruses that target bacteria, rather than human, plant or animal cells. For every bacteria, there is a phage that likes to latch on to them, take over their life processes and multiply. The baby phages then burst out to attack other nearby targets, thus killing the host cell. It's this quality that EBI plans to turn into ammunition food processors can use against food pathogens. As they are host specific, the company is developing a method to mass produce phages forevery pathogen found in food plants and on foods. The trick is to produce the right phages in enough quantities to manufacture a liquid product that can be using during processing, either to destroy pathogens on the surfaces of food, or residingon equipment, packaging and other contact materials. As a scientific spinoff from research by the US-based National Institutes of Health the company has been developing phage production methods since 2001, when it was formed in the Netherlands. Thecompany is developing its pathogen killers in a joint effort with Nizo, a Dutch food consultancy. Now it is on the verge of going to market with its first product, a liquid of phages that eat Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause listeriosis, an often fatal infection. Last week the company published safety data in the Regulatory Journal of Toxicology and Pharmacology on its Listeria-killing phages as a means of getting regulatory approval in the US, Europe andaround the world. "To our knowledge this is the most comprehensive case presented to date," Offerhaus said. "All perceivable safety aspects have been demonstrated, including genomics,allergenicity and toxicity." Listeria has been implicated in several large food poisoning outbreaks in the US and Europe. Listeria poisoning results in the highest rate of hospitalisation of any foodborne pathogen. About 20per cent of its victims die, the second highest death rate for food poisioning victims. Listeria bacteria are psychotropic, meaning they continue to grow at refrigeration temperatures and are one of the major safety and liability concerns for the modern food processor, Offerhaus said. What's especially important is the product's ability to kill pathogens residing on equipment as biofilms, hard coatings of bacterial communities that are difficult to remove. Worldwide food and non-food industries spend about $7bn on toxic chemicals that are only partially successful in blocking the bacterial scum, according to estimates. Offerhaus says modern food manufacturing safety processes often end up leaving a surface of hard-to-kill bacteria that have survived the cleaning processes. "Phages can successfully attack these biofilms, getting into their nooks and crannies," he said. Once regulatory approval is achieved, EBI hopes to begin marketing its Listeria killer next year. The product is a liquid concentrate of the Listeria-eating phages. Once it has launched that developed, the company plans to move on to the commercial production of phages for Salmonella, then Campylobacter and other food pathogens. In response to a question on the product's safety Offerhaus said: "Anyone of us here would be willing to drink it." External links to companies or organisations mentioned in this story: EBI Food Safety

Related topics Food Safety & Quality

Related news

Show more

Follow us


View more