Discovering genetic fingerprints of heat-beating micro-organisms could bring us closer to understanding why some foods spoil and how bacteria manage to survive heat treatments.
In a food science initiative supported by the Dutch government, researchers from Amsterdam university have been looking at the way the Bacillus group of bacteria can produce exceptionally heat resistant spores. These spores can survive the processes meant to kill them, like pasteurisation, and go on to grow, multiply and contaminate our food.
Dr Bart Keijser, who led the research, will present the investigations today at the Society for General Microbiology's meeting in Manchester in the UK.
The scientists claim that being able to identify contaminants accurately, and early on, could allow the consumer to buy crunchier vegetables and less highly processed food in the future.
"We are using molecular techniques to uncover the heat resistance secrets of these spores, and to find out how they survive the preservation processes," said Dr Bart Keijser. Adding that once the researchers have identified "their unique genetic fingerprint, we can design new detection systems to find any micro-organisms that have survived heat treatment."
Results so far have identified more heat resistance from the bacteria when food ingredients such as milk powder and spices are used. According to the scientists, the amount of minerals the spores can absorb might also contribute to their heat resistance.
Opportunities for the food industry lie in the fact that if micro-organisms are pin-pointed, manufacturers can adjust their food production and preservation processes accordingly.
Until now the food industry has had to assume that in every case, the worst possible type of contamination has already happened, leading to over-processing of most foods.
The Dutch scientists claim that, using their results, companies will be able to pre-screen ingredients, use the best preservation method in each case, and reduce energy costs and losses from contamination while maintaining safety levels.
"I hope this will mean we need less preservation techniques, and so less processing for most food. That should give us enhanced food structure such as crispier vegetables, while still maintaining a long shelf time," added Dr Bart Keijser.
The World Health Organisation estimates that as many as one person in three in industrialised countries may be affected by foodborne illness each year, resulting in human suffering and economic losses running into billions of euros.
Dr Keijser is presenting the paper 'Spore Heat resistance of Bacillus food spoilage isolates' at the Society of General Microbiology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology from 8-11 September 2003.