Researching Microbial Food Safety and Spoilage
Microbial Food Safety
It is estimated that one in six people in the U.S. will contract a food-borne disease this year, resulting in 48 million cases, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths (Scallen et al., 2011). The food industry combats threats to microbial food safety through implementation of scientifically valid intervention strategies. Through research, teaching, and extension we work to develop these interventions in the form of formulation and processing controls, sanitation and environmental detection programs, and identification of critical gaps and evaluating employee behavior. (See: Phage Biocontrol, Murcor control in yogurt, Bacteriocins for food safety)
Microbial Food Spoilage
Food quality issues resulting from microbial food spoilage are a significant problem within the food industry that result in waste, customer dissatisfaction, and that threaten brand protection. Global estimates on food waste and loss suggest that 40% of the food supply is not consumed due to pre-harvest loss or post-harvest food waste (FAO, 2012). Specifically, 25% of the post-harvest food supply may be wasted due to microbial food spoilage (Gram et al., 2002). We work to characterize spoilage biota, including bacteria and fungi, retroactively evaluate quality failures to determine cause, and determine methods to prospectively extend shelf-life and reduce the likelihood of special-cause quality failures. (See: Microbial spoilage in juice production, Food spoilage)
Regulatory Compliance, Tradeoffs, and Industry Technical Needs
Food safety and microbial food spoilage can, at times, be considered two sides of the same coin. In one sense, both are related to microbial contamination and/or proliferation and are mitigated by similar intervention strategies; only the target and its relative sensitivity to the intervention varies. Similarly, big-picture strategies for managing microbial food safety and quality risks are philosophically very similar. HACCP-based programs exist for both quality and safety, statistical process control methods can be applied in either case, etc., again by varying the target.
In other cases, food safety and quality goals are in opposition and tradeoffs exist between either and emerging issues and trends. For example, conditions designed to control spoilage and extend shelf-life may enhance the risk for outgrowth of psychrotolerant bacterial pathogens during refrigerated storage. Or, trends in clean-label and minimal processing, while validated for safety, may change the relative risk of a spoilage incident occurring. We work to evaluate the nuances in these production factors by considering both safety and spoilage, and translating this work into concrete deliverables for the food industry. (See: Quality Produce, Risk mitigation for immunocompromised consumers, Fungal spoilage)