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New lab tests food safety


In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that 89 percent of store-bought meat contained bacteria, most of which are resistant to antibiotics.

Foodborne pathogens, such as salmonella and E. coli can pose a threat to plants and livestock, but when farmers and producers misuse the antibiotics meant to keep the bacteria from getting to the consumer, the effects can be just as damaging.

Alya Limayem, an assistant professor of cell biology, has established a new lab, tentatively named USF Food Sciences Lab, in order to test the effects antibiotics have on consumer foods.

In July, the lab received its first batch of Enterococcus faecium, an infectious pathogen that is not as easy to test for as more common foodborne bacteria.

Limayem and her team of graduate researchers are attempting to develop their own rapid microbial detection system that will allow for them to test foods from grocery stores and farms for antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

“Right now we can detect most foodborne pathogens in a sample in under 50 minutes with one machine,” Limayem said. “But we are also developing detection on another machine that will allow us to detect some harder to find pathogens.”

Limayem said current research already suggests the misuse of antibiotics by farmers and producers has led to consumers themselves becoming resistant to antibiotics. She and her team are hoping to better establish that connection.

“It’s all about tracking the issue from the source, which is the producer,” Limayem said. “We want to see how the misuse of antibiotics at the source affects the consumer who eats the product.”

In addition to testing food for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the team will also be testing how natural antibiotics interact with the bacteria commonly found in food.

“Many other labs are trying to develop new synthetic antibiotics to combat these bacteria, but we want to see how effective naturally forming antibiotics may be,” Aung Htet, a graduate student and lab assistant, said.

The team is currently testing two natural antibiotics: nisin and pediocin. Nisin has been used as a preservative in many foods since 1969.

“We want to look for different alternatives to stopping the forming of bacteria in our food,” Htet said. “We want to test and see if these work on the foodborne pathogens and if they are safer or more effective than the synthetic ones that are most used.”

Limayem said, ultimately, the key for stamping out antibiotic resistance is for producers to use accurate dosages. She said she and her team hope to work toward better insuring the food supply and consumers’ overall health.

“We need to figure out better dosage and ensuring it’s being followed,” Limayem said. “These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can possibly end up in our water supply, lakes and rivers.”

Soon, the lab hopes to partner with supermarket chains and farms that would like to have produce and livestock checked for bacteria and receive guidance on ensuring the proper use of antibiotics.