The Fight Against Foodborne Illness Goes High-Tech

The Fight Against Foodborne Illness Goes High-Tech

HAMBURG, GERMANY - JUNE 02: A lab technician holds a bacteria culture that shows a positive infection of enterohemorrhagic E. coli, also known as the EHEC bacteria, from a patient at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf on June 2, 2011 in Hamburg, Germany. German health authorities are continung to grapple with the current outbreak of EHEC and claim that initial suspicions of cucumbers from Spain as being the source are unfounded, though they warn against consuming raw vegetables. The University Medical Center has the highest number of patients infected with EHEC as well as 102 patients who have come down with hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication that can lead to kidney failure, convulsions and epileptic seizures and is caused by EHEC. Authorites are reporting at least 2,000 cases of EHEC infection nationwide and at least 470 cases of HUS. Across Europe at least 17 people have died from the outbreak.

SourceSean Gallup/Getty

Why you should care

Because you have a sushi problem. Oh, admit it.

There was that little restaurant in Vietnam, 2008. The Paris bakery in 2012. The corner bistro in Toronto in 2013. Sadly, this isn’t a travelogue. It’s the chronicle of one woman’s bouts of food poisoning.

A self-described adventurous eater who has stomached plenty of exotic food in her lifetime, Melissa Truong can’t say for sure why she’s fallen ill so many times from seemingly safe meals. But the 27-year-old lawyer from Toronto is not the only one who’s been felled by rogue cilantro. From the listeriosis outbreak that killed three last summer to a food-related salmonella outbreak that landed Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell in prison with a 28-year sentence, stories of mass recalls, food-related illnesses and deaths have been getting tons of attention. It’s a problem modern science has long struggled with. Now our friends in Silicon Valley are taking a crack at it using things like big data, genomic food analytics and molecular detection.

The scale of the problem is sizable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food-borne diseases cause 48 million illnesses a year — that’s about 91 food poisonings a minute. There are also 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths in the United States each year. And each year about 48 million people, about one out of every six Americans, get gastroenteritis because of food, says Dr. John Besser, deputy chief, enteric diseases of the laboratory branch of the CDC. The numbers are down significantly from 1999, the last time the CDC collected data, but, Besser says “the impact on society is actually quite large.” Please hold the mayo.

Factors such as temperature, humidity and whether the door of a fridge has been left open can be verified remotely.

A couple of issues are in play: finding out about food contamination before it’s national news and the safe storage and handling of food. There are two ways that the CDC catches on to potential food contamination cases, says Besser. One, it can wait for an outbreak to be reported, interview those affected and try to pinpoint a common source. This let’s-see approach sounds more like a friend to E. coli than to your stomach. A slightly more proactive way is to identify a sample of the germ and send it in for molecular testing at the local or state PulseNet lab. There’s a central database at the CDC where patterns can be compared across states, says Besser, which facilitates the linking of cases over broad distances. Both strategies focus on containment, not prevention.

As for proper storage and handling, the traditional method has been comically low-tech. Think pen and paper. People who work in restaurants, food manufacturing plants and distributors keep an eye on a long checklist of items throughout their shifts, including storage facility cleanliness, food temperature and humidity. While these methods are industry standard, they — shockingly — often fail to catch and contain contaminations at their source. Next stop, recall. On that front, Silicon Valley’s Clear Labs, which analyzes the makeup of food, has built the world’s largest molecular food database for comparison. The thousands of tests run by Clear Labs, which last year announced a $6.5 million Series A funding round, yielded grim results: rat DNA in hamburger patties, water buffalo in “beef” hot dogs, pork in “pork-free” products, meat in vegetarian products; the tests also revealed that 16% of sushi samples were from cheaper fish species than what was ordered.

Sasan Amini, CEO of Clear Labs, says the goal is to shift the paradigm from food safety to food quality. “What we want to enable is expanding the scope of testing beyond the traditional test,” he says, so instead of just focusing on the high-risk foods like meat and poultry, the company will try to bring “more transparency” to other foods. While genomic tests can take up to two weeks before returning results, Amini expects to reduce that turnaround time. Philadelphia-based Invisible Sentinel’s product Veriflow can detect the presence of listeria, salmonella or E. coli in 18 to 24 hours. The pregnancy test–like product can be used in-house, without sending samples to a lab, and by employees who are not familiar with genomic testing.

U.K.-based Elektron Technology uses connected devices to provide vital food storage information through its Checkit platform. Elements such as temperature, humidity and whether a fridge has been left open can be verified remotely on any device through a cloud-based application. Its tools and technologies are meant to automate the checking of some food safety materials and to simplify and modernize the manual checking of all the other elements, said Dr. Martin Nash, the product line manager of Checkit. All of this is stored on a 3-D visualization on a local hub, so the staff can see when local checks are due; when things go wrong, he says, alarms are triggered, which send e-mails to managers and supervising staff.

To be sure, we’re a long way from worry-free street meat. These technologies all have their drawbacks; for instance, there’s the potential for a false sense of security, says Dr. Michael Payne of the Western Center for Food Safety at UC Davis. He says that with any technology, there will be a small number of false positives and false negatives. But more definitive tests, he says, are typically more technologically challenging and more expensive. And the challenge of rolling all of this out on a national level, inclusive of food carts and corner delis, is daunting to say the least. ”I know I’ll sound like a stodgy old doctor,” says Payne,” but the biggest bang for your buck is still going to be in the preparation of food.”

In the meantime, Truong’s experiences with food poisoning and norovirus have altered her previously adventurous attitude toward eating. “I’m a lot more conscious of where my food comes from and how to store it and have become more of a careful eater,” she said, adding that she’s all for more technologically advanced food testing and storage practices as long as they don’t significantly increase the price of food. We’ll keep our comments about cheap sushi to ourselves.

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