Changes to the way food is produced, processed and offered to consumers could affect food safety, according to a microbiology society in the United Kingdom.

A Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM) briefing looked at recent and upcoming developments in food processing, food manufacture and the supply chain, which will have an impact on risks related to harmful microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses and their toxins in foods.

The report found future innovations in the manufacturing process, particularly microbial detection, control, packaging and storage will be crucial to tackle threats to food safety posed by microorganisms and their toxins.

Applied microbiologists play a role in identifying, understanding and tackling microbes and their toxins. The science of microbiology has applications from activities on the farm and in food manufacturing to retailers and consumer behaviors at home.

Role of automation

The report found manufacturing is shifting to increasingly complex automated processes, making use of advanced robotics and digital approaches. The meat industry already uses video image analysis to evaluate the quality of carcasses.

Full automation has potential food safety benefits such as the need for fewer workers reducing the risk of contamination through manual handling, according to SfAM. However, formation of biofilms on machinery is a significant challenge in food processing that must be addressed. The need to tackle biofilms will become greater as 24-hour automated production lines become more common and more advanced machinery is employed, such as robotics and 3D printers.

The UK National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC) was established in 2017 to understand biofilms. Food safety projects announced in 2018 focus on use of blue light and plasma to prevent and remove the coating produced by some microorganisms when they stick to surfaces, such as metal, plastic or food. Biofilms are difficult to remove as they can be resistant to chemicals and may form in hard-to-reach areas.

Genomic technologies such as Whole Genome Sequencing are fast and effective when investigating outbreaks of foodborne disease. While this technology was expensive and only done by a limited number of laboratories, it is now more cost-effective and can be undertaken with minimal training.

Portable WGS devices are now being used to research foodborne pathogens. In the near future, it is plausible these devices will work off a mobile phone battery and could be used virtually anywhere. As this technology becomes increasingly accessible, however, it is important users are sufficiently trained to interpret data they produce.

Another approach is use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Genome sequencing and use of big data and AI have potential to transform public health strategies to prevent disease and rapidly respond to outbreaks, according to SfAM.

The report found algorithms would need to be able to take account of information such as how microorganisms interact with different environments and food materials, changes in storage time and temperature and whether the intended consumers are within a vulnerable group like hospital patients.

IBM and Mars are gathering data on the microbiomes of various ingredients in the supply chain as part of the Sequencing the Food Supply Chain Consortium (SFSCC). Detecting a shift from a “normal” microbiome in the food chain may reveal potential issues such as contamination. In 2017, the SFSCC said it was applying this approach to the dairy industry in the United States.

Blockchain and bacteriophages

The use of distributed ledger technology (DLT), such as blockchain, is rapidly gaining traction in the agri-food sector with Nestlé, Unilever and IBM already using it for traceability and transparency in food supply chains.

Blockchain could promote the standardization of data across the food industry but usefulness will depend on the quality of data going in. Routine inspection, audit and analysis efforts will remain the most important method of ensuring food industry practices are safe, said SfAM.

One method being looked at to decontaminate food is bacteriophages, which are viruses that selectively infect bacteria but not humans or animals. Phages have been Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and have been used since the mid-2000s.

The report found one hurdle facing their use in the U.K. is public acceptance of them in the food chain and that lessons could be learned from food irradiation.

“As the food supply chain increases in complexity with many more ways for consumers to receive food, the risk of contamination will change and regulators will need to adapt to meet new challenges,” according to the briefing.

“Further, local environmental health officers and other regulatory officials must be given sufficient support to understand changing food processing and purchasing trends, how these impact on microbiological risks in their local area and the technologies that are used to control these risks. This translates to a need to strengthen and maintain the U.K. skills base in food microbiology to keep up with the fast-evolving consumer environment.”

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