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Understanding Microbes to Improve Food Safety

What can harm us can also help us


By Alana Hippensteele

September 16, 2019


Probiotics have grown in popularity as an area of focus in our diets, from products like yogurt and sauerkraut to kimchi and kombucha, we have learned that the inclusion of probiotics can support a healthy gut. More and more research is also shedding light on how the role of the gut may be greater in our lives than we previously understood, with some calling the gut a “second brain” that significantly affects our moods and thoughts. The microbiome in our gut flora consists of trillions of microorganisms, the entirety of which science does not yet completely understand. Yet what is becoming increasingly clear is that a further understanding of this microbiome may lead to breakthroughs in science, not only in the health sector, but in cleaning and hygiene and food safety as well.


There is more research available now than ever before that explains that our current cleaning methods may leave something to be desired in cleaning potential due to a lack of knowledge around what microbes are, how they work, and what their affect is on human health. As that knowledge grows, we will become more and more able to answer questions around how to manage microbes, and even work with them in order to improve human health through methods that extend beyond dietary needs.



Cindy Davis of National Institutes of Health explained at the symposium on Microbiomes in Food Safety, Food Quality, and Human Health that “Humans are composites of species, with up to ten times as many microbial cells as human cells. Our microbiomes benefit us in many ways: they allow us to harvest nutrients and extract otherwise inaccessible energy; produce vitamins; metabolize carcinogens, and compete with pathogens. Every individual’s microbiomes (which differ depending on body location) are unique to them.” What becomes clear in Davis’s statement is the extent to which we are made up of organisms that are immense in scope and difficult to understand in their entirety, as each individual body’s microbiomes are different from one another, creating unique questions regarding the optimal health and balance of each body.


Davis explains further, “Having a greater diversity of species seems to be important (and can help reduce susceptibility to pathogens), but it remains unknown exactly which organisms and what abundance of them is desirable for health. Although certain shifts in the human microbiome (gut and other locations) have been correlated with various states of disease, no definition for a healthy microbiome currently exists, and we cannot yet predict how broad changes to the microbiome translate into health effects.”


Yet, we have known for a long time that the manipulation of microbes can help to manage the spoilage of food, although, historically, we did not have the specific knowledge of what microbes are and how they work. The fermentation process, which is caused by the activity of specific microbes present in or added to a food or beverage, has existed, especially in beverages, since Neolithic times (about 12,000 years ago at the end of the Stone Age). We have used the fermentation process in our creation of beer, bread, cheese, vinegar, wine, and yogurt in Western culture for thousands of years, with many other common food products using fermentation processes in cultures beyond the West as well. Yet it wasn’t until the 19th century that we began to understand what fermentation was, with Louis Pasteur making the discovery that lactic acid fermentation is caused by living organisms in 1857.





Today, we still have much more to learn, but it is clear that microbes play a huge role in human health, beyond just our diet. Microbes exist on surfaces to a degree that we still do not entirely understand, although there is more research that shows that some cleaning methods do not yet entirely eliminate the buildup of biofilm, which is the collective of one or more types of microorganisms that grow on surfaces. Additionally, biofilm may not always be visible, which is why traditional cleaning methods may not always eliminate its presence. It is also difficult to determine the presence of biofilm on surfaces due to its potential lack of visibility, although since biofilm is made up of bacteria, fungi and protists, it also has an effect on the existence and persistence of foodborne pathogens in food handling.



What becomes illuminated is that the organisms that can harm us can also help us, if we are made aware of which ones we are working with and which ones we are eliminating.



So, it is clear that microbes exist on surfaces and have a potential negative affect on our health, and that the presence of biofilm on surfaces, if not eliminated, can negatively affect every aspect of food handling. Yet, what is interesting to learn is that the use of microbes can also be the very thing to eliminate the hazards caused by other microbes and organisms, as further research into the subject has indicated. What becomes illuminated is that the organisms that can harm us can also help us, if we are made aware of which ones we are working with and which ones we are eliminating.


For example, certain researchers have “investigated the fungal strain Trichoderma harzianum Th33 as biocontrol agent with [an] important role in disease prevention, improving the quality of agricultural products and reduction of pesticide hazards. Copper-tolerant Trichoderma can be used in combination with copper-containing pesticides and therefore reduce the use of chemical pesticides. In addition, it can also be used for bioremediation of copper-contaminated soils since copper pollution is disadvantageous to the quality and safety of food.”[1]


It may be surprising that the application of fungus into our food can in fact improve the quality of that food, rather than harm it. Some microbes when applied to food can even improve human health, such as Lactobacillus plantarum, which is a protective culture in cheese making. The work of researchers who are attempting to understand more about the interaction of microbes on food, specifically in the area of enhancing food safety and diminishing the spread of foodborne pathogens, are continuing to shed light on aspects of our own internal ecosystems that we would not be able to understand otherwise.


Alana Hippensteele is the Editor of American Cleaning & Hygiene.

[1] Nevijo Zdolec, José Manuel Lorenzo, and Ramesh Chandra Ray, “Use of Microbes for Improving Food Safety and Quality,” BioMed Research International, vol. 2018, Article ID 3902698, 2 pages, 2018.