Keeping The Bugs Off The Beef

A new process could drastically reduce food-borne disease

Each year, more than four million Americans get sick after eating bacteria-tainted foods, and more than 1,200 die. Despite hot-water rinsing and steam pasteurization, common bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella still vex meat handlers. Indeed, just last September, more than 300 people were sickened by E. coli-infected beef at a party in Petersburg, Ill.

Now, researchers at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and packing giant Farmland National Beef Packing Co. say they've come up with a natural way to neutralize these microbes. The solution: a spray that detaches the contaminants from meat, preventing bacteria from binding to iron and starving them so they can't reproduce. The spray, to be detailed at a Feb. 29 Agriculture Dept. conference, uses activated lactoferrin, a protein derived from cow's milk. "It's a very novel approach to food safety," says John R. Miller, chief executive of Farmland.

KEY ADVANTAGES. Novel--and less politically sensitive--than irradiation of beef, which is now the most effective weapon against E. coli. Irradiation was cleared by the Agriculture Dept. on Feb. 22, but with "Frankenfood" fears on the rise, industry insiders fret it will never catch on.

By contrast, researchers at Farmland and Cal Poly believe lactoferrin offers key advantages. They claim the protein can ward off bacterial contamination for 45 days or more, so treated meat will remain safe long after it's bought or opened. That's a big leap over protection from irradiation, which ends when a package is opened. And equipment to apply the spray would be cheaper than the multimillion-dollar cost of radiation devices, says Farmland's Miller, who plans to commercialize it.

Farmland, which is based in Kansas City, Mo., still needs regulatory approval, but if the spray works, it could stem the rise in bacteria-caused recalls for all kinds of meats, which now average one a week. So far, tests in labs and at a pilot slaughterhouse at Cal Poly look encouraging. A.S. "Narain" Naidu, head of the school's Center for Antimicrobial Research, found the spray works against E. coli, Salmonella, and even 10 radiation-resistant bacteria. "We took a natural compound, an innate defense factor in the cow, and we replenished it back into the cow after slaughtering," he says.

While details of the work have not been widely disclosed yet, food-safety advocates and industry insiders alike are intrigued. "That sounds like the kind of technology that provides minimal input into the production process but can deliver a significant safety result," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group. For now, testing is still at early stages, and many questions--including the spray's effectiveness on poultry or pork--remain to be answered. But the prospect of a more effective antibacterial treatment is clearly the most savory news the beef industry has had in some time.

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