Food-borne pathogens, innumerable in number, cause a catalogue of diseases, many of them with potential to cause death. Why is that we are not able to prevent such food poisoning episodes totally inspite of enormous scientific knowledge and large resources at our disposal? The question is a difficult one to answer satisfactorily though many reasons can be cited. Think of the gigantic size of this sector spanning across more than 150 countries in 5 major continents. According to some estimates food processing industry produces more than 50, 000 products at any given time and at least 10% of these are replaced by new products using new technologies. In such a scenario where millions of hands are involved in handling the food from farm to the fork and an extended distribution spanning over 15000 Km where do we look for the culprits whenever a food poisoning episode breaks out? It is like picking a pin from a haystack! Still world has done reasonably well so far .
Globally the out put of processed foods is variably placed at 1.6 to 4.8 trillion dollars from a raw material base worth 48 trillion dollars. How far these figures are reliable we do not know but by any standard the dimension of this sector is gigantic. If this is so how well we have done in controlling this scourge with the facilities, expertise and experience at our disposal? World wide 2 billion cases of food borne disease incidences are reported every year though some doubts remain regarding such a high figure. Except in developed countries like the US, Europe, Australia etc the documentation of food-borne diseases incidences in most other countries, is a sham lacking credibility. USA reports that there were 47.8 million cases of food related incidences, working to about 1600 cases per 1 lakh population which highlights the seriousness of food poisoning in that country. Out of this 9.4 million cases were pathogen related, caused by 31 known bugs. Even after hospitalization and best medical care Americans are known to get, there were more than 3000 deaths which could not be prevented. In the UK there were 5.5 million food poisoning cases, almost 1 in 16 of the population affected by infection carried by the foods they consumed. Compare this with what is happening in Asia where there were 7 lakh deaths caused by spoiled foods, it is said!.
What are these pathogens about which world is so scared of? They can be bacteria, viruses, fungi etc which cause symptoms to appear in 12-72 hours. These symptoms include vomiting, fever, aches, diarrhea and others. How can these vectors gain access to foods? Through negligence in handling, processing, storage and due to bad sanitary environment. Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella spp, Escherichia coli 0157:H7 are the major causative organisms for a major part of the food poisoning cases reported in many countries. There are many other bugs like B.cereus, Listeria spp, Shigella spp, Streptococci spp, Staphylococcus spp and a few others pitching in to cause other food poisoning episodes. Bacteria like Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus cereus secrete enterotoxins which are poisonous while Aflatoxins and Ochratoxins are secretary products from fungi like Aspergillus parasiticus and Aspergillus flavus. If we know so much about these predators in our foods what holds us back to improve the process technologies to ensure their destruction totally? Unfortunately many food borne diseases are caused during post-processing phase of food handling which is outside the control of the manufacturers.
One would assume that the food industry will be keen to deploy most reliable, fastest and lowest cost diagnostic tools to detect and eliminate pathogens from their raw materials, intermediate materials and final packed products. Researchers from the US have claimed to have developed a new diagnostic tool for detecting the presence of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens precisely and quickly. The test is based on the accepted biological theory that each and every microorganism has a specific and unique biomarker in their cells that could be DNA or RNA and by targeting this marker through a specially designed biochip, presence of these vectors can be detected fast. Though the present stage of development is confined to single biochip for each individual pathogen, there appears to be technical feasibility of developing multiplex chips that has the ability to detect several pathogens at one go.
Probably the enthusiasm of the scientists was spurred by the sufferings of millions of people affected by food poisoning and naturally they assumed that the food industry would be the perfect market for their new innovation. The quick time test they developed is claimed to identify, several bugs including the dreaded E. coli 0157, which has caused a number of deadly outbreaks in the United States and other parts of the world. Their test also is supposed to identify other pathogens responsible for brucellosis also which results from eating undercooked meat or unpasteurized dairy products. Though their test was inexpensive and fairly fast, the food industry does not seem to be too impressed as the latter wanted even faster tests that could give results in a jiffy!
Probably food industry does not want to save on the cost on the testing kit considering that the consequences of "not catching" the infection in time could be more disastrous in economic terms. A bench mark time of 2 hours was demanded to conclude the test which the above innovation was not able to achieve. That shifted the focus of the researchers to target medical industry where hospital sanitation is crucial to avoid infection of patients through ill maintained environment, furnishings, medical tools, foods served, human interface and many other sources. The test can also recognize the virus that causes Dengue fever, potentially valuable for surveillance activities both here and abroad, and human papillomavirus (HPV), which is linked to cervical and oral cancers. That is how a test targeted at food industry became a darling of the medical industry in no time. Thus food industry's loss became medical industry's gain!