Sunday, February 12, 2012


Frequent episodes of food contamination with pathogenic bacteria have focused the attention of the safety authorities on the vulnerability of meat industry to such tainting and the urgent need to come out with effective ways of counteracting this threat through efficient treatment techniques. While irradiation is a neat technology that can be deployed to kill bacteria, its industry wide use is restricted by the need to declare the same on the label which is not considered possible for marketing reasons by the meat industry. Besides some countries do not allow irradiation of meat to prevent low grade meat being treated with gamma radiation and passed of as premium quality product. The concept of using Plasma beams for surface decontamination by scientists may possibly offer another viable process and here is a take on this new development. 

'Concentrated plasma beams can effectively kill pathogens on raw chicken, according to a proof-of-concept study published in the January Journal of Food Protection by food safety researchers at Drexel University. In the study, plasma eliminated all or nearly all bacteria from raw chicken -- both skinless and with skin -- when the bacteria were present in low concentrations. On chicken with high concentrations of bacteria, plasma treatment resulted in "significant" reductions. Although heating chicken to safe temperatures kills all present bacteria, improperly handling raw meat can lead to infection from cross-contamination. According to the Drexel University press release, Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria are found on the surface of nearly 70 percent of raw chicken samples that gets tested. If implemented in a commercial setting, the plasma treatment would help safeguard against illnesses from cross-contamination or insufficient cooking by removing pathogens before they reach the market. The treatment works at room temperature. It does not cook the meat or alter its appearance. The study also found that plasma killed antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria just as effectively as its non-resistant counterparts. And in addition to removing pathogens from meat, plasma treatment killed large amounts of bacteria responsible for spoilage, thus potentially improving the meat's shelf life".

No doubt the process is quite attractive as it does not involve heat treatment which can change the eating quality of meat significantly but whether safety authorities will clear this process is a million dollar question because of the same argument regarding its potential misuse by the industry. Also uncertain is whether this laboratory findings will be amenable to mass processing and how costly it will be for commercial use. Food poisoning episodes are increasingly taking place in countries like the US and it is time that processes like irradiation and plasma beam are considered more favorably in coming days and with suitable overseeing these new technologies can raise the level of confidence about the safety of meat products in general among the consuming public. 


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