In 1906, when Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” that expose of unsanitary conditions in the meat industry shocked the nation, ranging from the public to regulators. Today, it is too well known how much can go wrong in the food supply chain, which is increasingly global. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in the U.S. alone, each year there are 37.2 million foodborne diseases, 228,744 hospitalizations, and 2,612 deaths. In addition to this human tragedy there are the negative commercial impacts such as the cost of recalls, which can bankrupt a company as it did the Peanut Corporation of America after the 2008 outbreak of Salmonella in its products. That means jobs are lost and communities financially devastated. Also, reputational capital takes a hit, demand could be down for exports, and lawsuits are filed. The full extent of these effects is unknown which is why WHO created the Initiative to Estimate the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases.
Given the high human and monetary stakes, both government and industry are focused on this problem. In addition, because of the increasing litigation, as a public service some lawyers are also attempting to become part of the solution. Marler Clark law firm, which specializes in this niche, provides information on foodborne diseases to the public, media, and Congress. Most recently it launched FOOD SAFETY NEWS.
A lot of this attention has been placed on the need for faster ways to identify the source of the disease, which could be Mexican peppers as it had been in the 2008 Salmonella outbreak. Rapid tracing is a priority of the epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the UK, public health officials at the Food Standards Agency have found DNA sequencing techniques promising for nailing down the causes of foodborne diseases. But, clearly the ideal solution is prevention. There has been good news on that front, thanks to technology. Here are two examples.
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One approach has been high pressure processing (HPP). The underlying technology dates back to the experiments in the 17th century on preserving food by French scientist Blaise Pascal. Essentially, one version entails putting already-packaged food such as pastrami into a pressure cooker, adding water, and then applying pressure at intense levels which could range from 60,000 to 87,000 pounds per square inch. That process destroys pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli 0157:H7, as well as the yeasts and molds microorganisms associated with spoilage, by disrupting cellular activity. Unlike other approaches which “zap” pathogens such as irradiation, applying heat, and using chemicals, HPP does not affect those parts of food which create the texture, flavor, and nutrition.
Among the companies leveraging this technology is Cargill. It has developed its own patent-pending high-pressure process for fresh ground beef patties which it calls “fressure.” As recently as May 2012 Cargill had issued a voluntary recall for possible Salmonella contamination of beef. Those following the meat industry know that hamburger is a frequent source of foodborne diseases, a reality which entered the public consciousness in 1993 with the Jack in the Box, owned by Foodmaker, fatal cases of E. coli 0157:H7.
Until Cargill created this process, no other company had designed a way to use the high pressure technology without negatively impacting how it looks and tastes. An added benefit for fressure, targeted at the food service industry, is a longer shelf life. That hash has been increased from 21 to 42 days.
Another type of approach aimed at prevention is being researched in Canada at the University of Guelph by a team headed by entrepreneur Hannah McIver. Essentially it involves probiotics or the war waged and won by “good bacteria” over “bad bacteria.” A theory about how this works is that probiotics disrupts bacteria’s communication systems. One kind of outcome is that a molecule in some probiotics impedes foodborne pathogens from becoming attached to the gut lining.
Through her company MicroSintesis Inc. McIver licensed the patent for this from the University of Guelph with the objective of developing commercial applications. The initial challenge for the McIver researchers is to learn more about how probiotics bacteria operate in order to identify what those products could be. They have been tested on simulated human guts as well as mice. The next challenge is get those through the regulatory process in Canada. If those two tasks get accomplished, the market possibilities are huge.
For example, those products could be an additive in baby food, preventing the 1.5 million global infant deaths from foodborne caused diarrheal diseases. That is a central WHO concern. Another market is animal feed which could eliminate the need for antibiotics. There has been growing attention paid to the problem of bacteria strains which have become resistant to antibiotics and then enter the food supply system. In its 2012 meat recall, Cargill informed regulators, media, and the public that the strain of Salmonella was not antibiotic resistant. Since the regulatory process for the animal segment often can be navigated faster than for the human one, these products are bound to become market realities sooner.
The technologies used in prevention could lessen financial risks for companies, ranging from the cost of recalls to litigation. Founder of Marler Clark attorney Bill Marler keeps pleading for industry to put him out of business. Someday soon that could happen because of preventive technologies already in use and those being developed.
About the Author
Jane Genova, President of Genova Writing, Coaching, and More, recently has published on business topics in Motley Fool, Wall Street Jobs report, AOL, and Odwyerpr.com. On her syndicated blog, housed in the Library of Congress, she covers legal subjects from a business perspective. She had been awarded a place in the McGraw-Hill program on financial reporting.