E. coli and Vegetables

While most E. coli bacteria are completely harmless, some strains can result in the hospitalization of thousands of people each year. E. coli travels with excrement or other exposure to the gastrointestinal tract of most animals and can be abundant were animals live. Between the fields, harvesting, processing, handling, and preparing of food, the potential to encounter harmful E. coli is present. What some don’t realize, however, is that vegetables are just as prone to E. coli as meat is. This is because while the gastrointestinal tract of a cow or pig can become cross-contaminated with the rest of the meat in a processing plant, animals can also easily drop their deposits in a field on an exposed plant.

Protecting consumers from E. coli and other harmful bacteria, such as Norovirus and Salmonella, is important, and public health officials are constantly working to both prevent and monitor potential outbreaks. Guidelines to prevent infections from E. coli include washing hands, thoroughly rinsing fruits and vegetables, and cleaning surfaces well. Yet, even these precautions and the act of successfully preparing food to the recommended temperatures, some bacteria can still slip through the cracks. This can occur when the food preparer doesn’t adequately clean surfaces or wash hands throughout preparation.

With fresh fruits and vegetables, which aren’t always cooked, consumers need to take extra precautions to make sure that their food is safe and that the surfaces that they’re working with remain clean. With diligent cleaning and careful preparation of food, consumers can minimize their risk of accidentally swallowing an infectious disease.

Still, there’s a lot of work that can be done in food processing to minimize consumer risk. A recent outbreak in Washington linked E. coli to celery used in fresh salads that were served in packages for immediate consumption. Recently, Chipotle has been under fire for being at the center for multiple outbreaks. When foods are prepared and packaged for immediate consumption, consumers trust that food is ready and safe for consumption. It’s imperative that those involved with the preparation of the food work to ensure that the food that makes it through the system is safe.

As food moves through a production line, points of possible contamination can be prevented by implementing smart technologies to stop the growth of harmful bacteria. At AMI, we’ve developed antimicrobial materials that utilize N-halamine powered by bleach. When N-halamine is powered with even light solutions of bleach, the N-halamine materials become charged in order to stop the growth of microbes that come in contact with it. As chlorine is already commonly used to disinfect surfaces in food production facilities, implementing surfaces that enhance the power of bleach can prove cost-effective while also reducing the risk of cross-contamination in a facility.

Combined with N-halamine surfaces, the antimicrobial power of the chlorine treatment commonly used can be extended over a longer period of time and creates a surface that actively stops the growth of harmful microbes, like E.coli. A crucial first step that we are working on is the implementation of the technology into processing plants. The application of these rechargeable materials, however, can be extended beyond food processing to other common surfaces that people touch on a daily basis. Smart surface technologies are a step into the future when it comes to making our food preparation processes safer. Utilizing these surfaces facilitates a win-win scenario for product developers as well as consumers.

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