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FROM prunes to lasers, food companies search for bacteria killers

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Prodded by lawsuits and government regulations, the food industry is looking everywhere from the kitchen cupboard to university laboratories for weapons against the bacteria that can make people sick.

Prunes can kill E. coli bacteria in ground beef, while cinnamon will do the same thing in juice, according to new studies. Common flavorings are finding new uses as bacteria killers in processed meats.

A more high-tech tool being pitched to food scientists at their annual convention this week is a system that uses high pressure to destroy microbes. New packaging that kills bacteria also is under development. At the University of California-Davis, lasers are under study as an antimicrobial treatment.

``There's a lot of work going on to see what works the best,'' said Alice Johnson, director of food safety programs for the National Food Processors Association. ``Everyone is still trying to get as much information as possible.''

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, cautioned that additives and treatments should not become a substitute for cleaning plants and products properly.

Lawsuits and food recalls for microbial contamination can be devastating to a company's public image and bottom line. Sara Lee Corp. last week pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and agreed to pay $4.4 million for selling tainted meat blamed for least 15 deaths in 1998.

About 76 million cases of food-borne illness are diagnosed nationwide each year, resulting in 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations, according to the government.

The closest thing to a magic bullet that the industry has so far is irradiation, either with electron beams or radioactive materials. The government approved the use of irradiation on meat last year and is expected to decide soon whether to allow it for luncheon meats, hot dogs and other precooked meat products.

However, irradiation equipment is expensive and consumer acceptance has been slow.

Sara Lee is now heating some of its meat products to kill Listeria monocytogenes, the bacteria that caused the 1998 poisonings, Johnson said. Other meat companies are trying various additives to kill listeria.

Oscar Mayer, a division of Kraft Foods, recently reported that a combination of widely used flavorings, sodium or potassium lactate and sodium diacetate, could control listeria growth in processed meats. The findings are being shared with other meat companies for possible use in their products.

It remains to be seen whether prune growers will sell meat companies on their product. According to a Kansas State University study presented at the Institute of Food Technologists convention Monday, the equivalent of one tablespoon of prune puree per pound of hamburger can kill more than 90 percent of the E. coli. The secret is believed to lie in a couple of acids that prunes contain.

``Yes, it may have antimicrobial properties, but I wouldn't stop cooking the meat. The flavor is fine,'' said Steve Kenney, a University of Georgia graduate student who sampled one of the prune burgers at the California Dried Plum Board's booth.

Other research indicates that a combination of cinnamon and carbon dioxide can destroy E. coli in apple juice; a solution of salt and phosphates can kill campylobacter, a pathogen in chicken; the herb ginkgo biloba is deadly to listeria.

A high-pressure system developed by a Kent, Wash., company, Flow International, is attracting attention from a variety of processors. Food is submerged in water and subjected to enough pressure to fatally damage bacteria without affecting the food itself.

Flow's customers include juice maker Odwalla Inc., which was fined $1.5 million in 1998 for an E. coli outbreak that killed a baby and made 66 other people sick. Hormel Foods has installed one of the systems to treat ham products. Perdue Farms has ordered the equipment to treat chicken.
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