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Opportunities abound in food safety

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WORTHINGTON -- Each year, foodborne diseases kill approximately 2.2 million people around the world, and most of them are children. It's an issue that impacts every country, with an average of 3,000 deaths recorded in the United States alone.

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Finding ways to reduce the presence of foodborne pathogens is booming business in the bioscience and biotechnology industry, and one speaker at the Regional Bioscience Conference in Worthington Thursday said his company is working on a probiotic that would reduce the spread of salmonella in poultry processing plants.

William Davies, CEO of Pacific Vet Group USA, said the current mode of processing chickens can result in the bird's crop -- an organ located at the base of a chicken's neck that stores its food -- being ruptured. When a crop carrying the salmonella bacteria ruptures, it has the potential to contaminate the equipment and product.

"We're in the process of developing a product that can be administered to chickens at feed withdrawal and it will reduce salmonella in the crop by 1,000-fold," Davies said in his presentation. "With our product, chicken will hit the line with a sanitized crop and no longer contaminate the processing plant."

Use of pre- and probiotics in the animal health industry is "increasing dramatically," Davies said, adding some of the top animal health companies are developing products that will reduce pathogen loads.

Economic opportunities abound for companies working to improve food safety, and for good reason. Foodborne illnesses tied to processing facilities, farms and even restaurants have been known to put companies out of business.

"Roughly one in six people are impacted by a foodborne disease annually, and those are just the ones that get reported," Davies said. "In 1997, about $35 billion (was spent on) treating diseases and lost productivity. I imagine that number is quite a bit bigger now.

"Food safety is important, it's always been important and it will continue to be important," he added.

The poultry, beef, dairy and pork industries are tied to nearly half of foodborne diseases, with the remainder stemming from leafy greens, fruits and nuts, vine crops, finfish, mollusk, grains/beans and others. The highest number of foodborne illnesses in dairy, he said, comes from consumption of raw milk, and yet raw milk consumption accounts for less than 2 percent of total dairy consumption.

"Our food supply is incredibly safe, and it's incredibly safe because of sophisticated ag production," Davies said.

Common pathogens associated with food production are campylobacter, listeria and salmonella. Davies said campylobacter is rapidly increasing in Europe, and that the U.S. will likely see more of the pathogen in the coming years.

He said the most important message to relay to consumers to avoid consumption of those pathogens is to clean, separate, cook and chill food properly.

"The majority of foodborne problems are not coming from the food themselves -- it's coming from lack of proper preparation," Davies said. "Preparation is the key to staying well."

As consumers become educated to proper food handling measures, food safety measures will continue to improve in production and processing.

"There are a lot of companies that have formed that are trying to do a better job of finding where the threats are so you can avoid them or deal with them another way," Davies said. "A lot of money is spent in research and all aspects of trying to ensure a safe food supply."

Therein lies the potential for new companies to be developed and for new technologies to reach the marketplace.

"Organizations that address foodborne disease creatively will be rewarded," Davies added.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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