“A sneaky germ.” That’s how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes Salmonella. The agency follows that uncomplimentary description with a warning that Salmonella can contaminate more than just poultry and eggs. “It sneaks its way into many foods — ground beef, pork, tomatoes, sprouts — even peanut butter,” says the CDC site.
Yet in the world of food safety, poultry stands out as a a significant player when it comes to Salmonella contamination. So much so that last December, in the wake of two nationwide Salmonella outbreaks linked to ground turkey in 2011, the USDA ordered companies that produce raw ground chicken, turkey and similar products to go back through their processing systems and figure out where things went wrong.
In one of the 2011 recalls of ground turkey, 136 people from 34 states became ill, 37 needed to be hospitalized and one person died.
Despite the recalls, demand for ground turkey and ground chicken products continues to grow. Industry officials say that consumers are looking for lower-cost alternatives to beef that have fewer calories and good nutritional value, and that ground poultry has emerged as a popular option.
Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, told Food Safety News that in 2012, 165 million pounds of ground chicken and 600 million pounds of ground turkey — altogether 765 million pounds of ground poultry — were sold, representing a 10 percent jump over the previous year. (This does not include the ground poultry ingredients added to products such as hot dogs.)
Pointing to the continuing drought in the Midwest and higher livestock feed prices, Super said the signs are pointing to the likelihood of higher beef prices and therefore increased demand for ground poultry.
A stroke of good timing
In the midst of all of this, Intralytix, a company that specializes in natural products that kill harmful foodborne pathogens, has developed a product, SalmoFresh, whose active ingredients seek out and kill Salmonella. This includes strains belonging to the most common, highly pathogenic variations of the bacteria, including Salmonella Heidelberg, Typhimurium, Enteritidis, Newport, Hadar, Kentucky and Thompson.
According to a company press release, SalmoFresh is specifically designed for foods that are at a high risk for Salmonella contamination. Red meat and poultry in particular can be treated before grinding for significant reductions in Salmonella contamination. In the case of poultry, SalmoFresh can be sprayed on the cut-up parts as they go through the line — before they’re ground up.
In the latest news from Intralytix, the company announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had granted SalmoFresh the status of GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe).
The company’s chief scientist, Alexander Sulakvelidze, said that GRAS recognition will allow SalmoFresh to be put into immediate use by the food processing industry as “a safe and effective approach for reducing the risk of foodborne salmonellosis.”
“We’ve shown the FDA that it works well,” company CEO John Woloszyn told Food Safety News, referring to the voluminous information and test results the company filed with the agency when it petitioned for GRAS status. “When the FDA acknowledges that a product is GRAS, customers feel more confident about it.”
SalmoFresh is all natural, kosher and halal. Woloszyn said that in the near future, it is expected to to be included in the Organic Materials Review Institute listing (OMRI), a status that another Intralytix product, ListShield, which fights against Listeria, already enjoys.
“We see a real possibility for organic markets with OMRI listing,” Woloszyn said, referring to conversations he’s had with agriculture department officials.
Although the company hasn’t recruited any customers yet, Woloszyn said that potential customers who are currently doing experiments with the product in their labs are reporting good results — that it’s very effective against Salmonella.
“There’s a great deal of enthusiasm about it,” he said, adding that testing generally takes several months.
Describing other advantages of the product, Woloszyn said that unlike irradiation, pressurization or chlorine washes, SalmoFresh doesn’t affect the color, taste, texture or odor of the poultry.
“It’s 100 percent natural,” he said.
As for cost, Woloszyn said that for processors, the advantage of using SalmoFresh is that it’s less expensive and far easier to use than technologies such as radiation and pressurization. And because it’s applied as a fine mist as the meat goes through the line, there’s no need for highly specialized equipment. All it takes is some nozzles and equipment, most of which is already available in most processing facilities.
He estimates the cost at 1 to 2 cents a pound, depending on the product.
But how does it work?
Bacteriophages, also known as phages, are the active ingredients in SalmoFresh and Intralytix’s other food safety products. In an earlier interview with Food Safety News, Woloszyn described phages as naturally occurring viruses that can be very effective in killing bacteria. They are everywhere, he said — inside of us, on our skin, in the soil, inside and on the outside of plants and animals, and even in the ocean. They do their work by going after specific targeted bacteria, infecting and then killing them.
As for SalmoFresh, the product “will significantly reduce levels of Salmonella, with as much as a 95-100 percent reduction in some cases,” according to Woloszyn.
In describing the strategy these phages use, Woloszyn said they attack the pathogen and inject their DNA into it. Once the daughter cells, which develop inside the bacteria, are ready, they break open the cell wall and go in search of more pathogens to attack.
Woloszyn said that before the advent of antibiotics, phage therapy was used against a range of human diseases with varying results. However, with the growth of antibiotic resistance, phage biotechnology is now being viewed as an alternative to antibiotics, in some cases.
Intralytix produced a video that shows how phages work against foodborne pathogens:
“Most thinking in the Western World is that you need to use harsh chemicals or irradiation against pathogens instead of the powers of Mother Nature,” Woloszyn said, adding that consumers are increasingly looking for “natural” food products.
“We are putting nature back to work, as intended,” he said.
Why is ground poultry so risky?
Poultry and Salmonella have always gone “hand in glove,” said Woloszyn. Indeed, most cooks know they should handle poultry as though it is contaminated with Salmonella simply because of the likelihood that it is.
But because any Salmonella contamination that might be present on the whole bird will be on the surface, cooking it thoroughly will kill any pathogens that might be on the the bird.
But Rafael Rivera, food safety specialist with U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, told Food Safety News that in the case of ground poultry, which often involves grinding up thousands of poultry parts in the same batch, the chances of cross-contamination are high. This can happen if even just a few of the chicken parts are contaminated with Salmonella.
That’s why it’s so important for people to throughly cook ground poultry, he said, emphasizing that the internal temperature needs to reach 165 degrees F. to ensure that the ground poultry is safe to eat.
When asked about SalmoFresh, he said it seems that it might be a good strategy and that he’d like to see the testing results. “Every strategy that controls Salmonella is a good one,” he said. “But it’s also important to see how it affects the looks and the taste of the product and how cost-effective it is.”
Super of the National Chicken Council said that the industry is always looking for new and innovative advances in science and technology in battling Salmonella.
And like Rivera, he emphasized that pathogens on the outside of any kind of meat, including poultry, can get inside a ground product.
“You have to pay extra special attention to the temperature,” he said, referring to labels that tell consumers to cook the ground meat to 165 degrees F. “Food safety is the Number One priority.”
A biotechnology company that focuses on producing and marketing bacteriophage-based products to control bacterial pathogens in environmental, food processing and medical settings, Intralytix has produced several food safety products that target foodborne pathogens.
In addition to SalmoFresh, it has developed EcoShield, which targets E. coli O157:H7; and ListShield, which targets Listeria monocytogenes. It also has developed probiotic/nutraceutical products as well as animal-health products.
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