This Could Be The Future Of Food Safety

Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
Spicy tuna roll fans may want to watch out: In an outbreak that started in May, 62 people have now gotten salmonella infections in the U.S. after eating sushi. In response, Osamu Corporation began a voluntary recall of its frozen yellowfin tuna. But, unfortunately, this is just the latest in a line of food-safety problems this year. In light of this outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) challenged researchers to find a better way to locate salmonella and other bacteria in our food — and the winners were announced this week.

As the World Health Organization called out earlier this year, food safety is a big problem — even more so in areas of the world where hunger is up and food-handling hygiene is down. The organization estimates that over 2 million deaths occur worldwide every year from contaminated food and water. So, it's clear that we need a better system.

We've already mourned the recall of our favorite hummus, ice cream, and frozen meals. And that's just the beginning. As a new study reveals, illness-causing bacteria could even be hiding in store-bought meat. But what's especially troubling, in this case, is that companies and regulators don't always test for these kinds of bacteria.

Where to even begin? Well, the FDA wants to be able to detect problems fast enough to roll out solutions before people get sick. Currently, the FDA tests for salmonella using cell cultures, which can take days to complete and get results — and can take up to two whole weeks for eggs. The FDA wants to improve on this with new techniques that can pick out bacterial contaminants quickly, cheaply, and easily at every step of food production — from farm to fork.

So, in its first Food Safety Challenge, originally proposed back in 2012, the FDA asked research groups around the country to step up and design better ways of detecting salmonella, specifically in fresh produce like tomatoes.

The winners, announced this week, managed to cut down the 24- to 48-hour waiting time to between 30 minutes and three hours. The first-place design, created by a team of researchers from Purdue University, uses small filters; the runner-up team uses portable, DNA-based technology.

Of course, all the projects are still in their early stages. But both winners successfully showed off their solutions at a demo day put on by the FDA earlier this month. So, things are looking good. We hope to find much less salmonella in our tomatoes and our tuna soon enough.
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