U Discovery May Greatly Reduce Food-Borne Illness

In the wake of a significant Cargill food recall, the University of Minnesota has discovered a natural lantibiotic that could be used to preserve food and to kill harmful bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.

University of Minnesota researchers have discovered and received a patent for a naturally occurring “lantibiotic” that could be added to food to kill harmful bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli.

Lantibiotics, peptides or protein-like molecules, are commonly used as food preservatives, but the form discovered by U of M researchers is the first natural preservative found to kill gram-negative bacteria, the university said.

The discovery comes in the wake of a salmonella outbreak. On Wednesday, Wayzata-based food manufacturing giant Cargill recalled about 36 million pounds of fresh and frozen ground turkey products made at one of its Arkansas facilities that may have been linked to the recent outbreak.

The U of M hopes its researchers' discovery will greatly reduce the number of food-related contaminations and subsequent food recalls.

“It's aimed at protecting foods from a broad range of bugs that cause disease,” Dan O'Sullivan, U of M professor of food and science, said in a statement. “Of the natural preservatives, it has a broader umbrella of bugs that it can protect against.”

The lantibiotic, found by chance during research by O'Sullivan and U of M graduate student Ju-Hoon Lee, could be used to prevent harmful bacteria in a countless foods, including meats, eggs, and dairy products. It is nontoxic, easy to digest, does not induce allergies, and is difficult for other harmful bacteria to develop resistance against, the U added.

According to the U of M, salmonella and E. coli account for more than half of all food recalls in the United States. The university, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said salmonella contributes to an estimated 28 percent of the more than 3,000 deaths related to food-borne illnesses each year.

“Salmonella burden has increased more dramatically than any other food-borne illness,” Shaun Kennedy, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, said in a statement. “The largest recall in 2010 for food contamination was eggs contaminated with salmonella.”

The University has received a patent for the preservative and its Office for Technology Commercialization is seeking a licensee for the technology.