The micro-organisms that contaminate our food can be deadly—and creative.
“Organisms are always adapting to new environments,” explains Dr. Mansel Griffiths of the University of Guelph. “That’s why every so often we see the emergence of an organism that we didn’t anticipate as being a food-borne problem.” Dr. Griffiths points to the example of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy); “mad cow disease,” as BSE is popularly known, is caused by an agent that no one thought could jump the species barrier.
“These sorts of things come along all too regularly,” says Dr. Griffiths, “and we could face a fairly significant public health disaster if we don’t have the capacity to deal with them.”
A keystone of that capacity in Ontario is the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety (CRIFS) at the University of Guelph. Dr. Griffiths is the Director. The Institute, which was funded in part by an investment from the Ontario Innovation Trust, houses a suite of equipment that gives researchers a versatile set of tools for understanding how contaminating organisms enter the food system, how they develop resistance to anti-microbial treatments, and how they can be detected and eliminated.
One focus has been on bacteriophages— viruses that infect bacteria. There are two ways that these phages can be useful against food contamination: to signal the presence of harmful bacteria, and to destroy them. Dr. Griffiths is focusing on the first approach, making use of the phenomenon of bioluminescence—the emission of light by living organisms in response to certain stimuli. In one example, he’s been able to take a naturally-occurring phage that attacks salmonella bacteria and genetically modify it so that the salmonella cells emit light when the phage infects them. The goal is to perfect a test that involves introducing the modified phage to a food sample, then testing the sample for the presence of light that would indicate salmonella contamination.
The advantage of this new kind of test is that it could be carried out in a matter of hours, instead of the days it takes for the more traditional method of growing a culture. The shorter the testing process, the quicker the meat or other food product can come to market—and the less time it’s exposed to further risk of contamination.
Other scientists are looking for ways to adhere bacteriophage to the paper or plastic film in which food comes wrapped, either as part of a contamination detection system, or to actually attack contaminating bacteria. Still others are researching the use of phage in cattle feed to attack and destroy E. coli 0157—a major cause of agricultural contamination—before it even leaves the cattle.
The health implications of all this research for Ontarians are obvious. But there’s an economic
benefit as well. “Trade in food and agricultural commodities is a global business these days,” explains Dr. Griffiths. “If research can keep us one step ahead of the game in terms of food safety, it’s going to improve our ability to export products, and give us a competitive edge in a global market.”