After the scientists step safely out of the airtight lab in the biocontainment plant, and after their spacesuit-like protective wear is disinfected, the room is flooded with chlorine dioxide gas.
“We make sure anything that’s in there stays in there,” said Robert Brackett, director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health.
The sterilizing gas and claustrophobia-inducing suits are mandatory in the lab, where researchers from the Food and Drug Administration and Illinois Tech come together to conduct research on foodborne bacteria.
Once a 5-gallon bucket of salmonella-infected peanut butter splattered all over the researchers. The impervious suits were well-warranted then, Brackett said.
This year alone, consumers have been sickened by cyclospora linked to salads at McDonald’s, salmonella connected to pre-cut melon sold in grocery stores and to Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal, and E. coli bacteria on romaine lettuce, to name a few incidents. With human lives and billions of dollars on the line, researchers at the facility in Bedford Park, just a half-hour outside Chicago, work with the FDA and food companies to test the technology that could help prevent outbreaks.
America’s food industry has a major stake in the research conducted at the institute, a unit within the Illinois Institute of Technology. The annual economic impact of foodborne illness in the U.S. is estimated to be between $55.5 billion and $93.2 billion, according to a 2015 Ohio State University study.
At the Bedford Park facility scientists study all the big-name bacteria: salmonella, listeria, E. coli. They infect foods and test the bacteria’s resistance. They validate technology and processes the food industry might use to prevent contamination.
In July, Mondelez International, which makes Ritz, and Campbell Soup Co., which makes Goldfish, recalled several of its products over fears of salmonella. News that a dry product could have contained salmonella shocked some, as traditional wisdom taught the bacteria grow in wet foods, Brackett said.
But research and experience have shown that salmonella can survive for years in a dry state, he said. At the Bedford Park facility, researchers are testing technology that could kill the resilient bacteria on dry goods, such as nuts, grains or spices.
“When I went to school, no one ever thought the dry ingredients would be a problem,” Brackett said. Beside him, a piece of machinery rained down cool plasma gas like a waterfall of blue fire on the food moving along its belt.
The energized gas kills the bacteria in the food — or at least that’s the idea. A nearby glass-walled chamber housed flour and peanut butter in containers marked with the dates they were contaminated. Researchers will monitor those substances after subjecting them to the bacteria-killing technology.
“Sometimes bacteria can be injured,” Brackett said. “If you keep them around long enough, they can come back.”
Another machine nearby tests how high-intensity light kills bacteria. Though the machine is fairly compact, the light it emits could be powerful enough to strip paint off an airplane, Brackett said. Of course, it’s not used at such high levels in the lab.
As the researchers at the lab test the technology, the science behind it will be validated for the FDA. They re-create the environment in which foodborne bacteria would survive and figure out how to kill them. Findings are published in scientific journals for the food-safety community to learn from. Meanwhile, scientists closely monitor outbreaks in the wild — like the salmonella-infected Honey Smacks — to inform their research.
At first glace, the labs at the facility look like any other — safety googles and lab coats by the entrance, sinks and racks of equipment lining the walls. The occasional researcher moves from one lab to another or tests a piece of equipment.
But visitors to these labs are met with stark warning signs. “DANGER: Hazardous chemicals,” one reads. “Restricted Access Area, Authorized Personnel Only,” says another. A bright orange warning screams, “BIOHAZARD,” and another has a skull and crossbones.
A loud industrial area at the facility substitutes the lab coats by its door for hard hats. Some of the machinery towers above the people who run it. A cylindrical piece of equipment that targets botulism spores in soup cans requires the user to turn a wheel that wouldn’t be out of place on a pirate ship.
A nearby machine applies pressure equivalent to that at the bottom of the ocean onto foods. Pressurizing kills bacteria such as listeria, salmonella and E. coli without compromising the freshness or flavor with heat, Brackett said.
The potentially fatal listeria has been the focus of several recent recalls, including one this year in which Whole Foods Market voluntarily recalled Explorateur French Triple Creme cheese from nine stores in Illinois, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Connecticut and New Jersey.
It is common to process products like fresh guacamole, deli meats and juices with high pressure, Brackett said. It maintains the quality of the product better because it doesn’t subject it to such high heat as other processing methods. The process isn’t new, but as consumers demand fresher food with fewer ingredients, it’s gaining popularity as a way to kill bacteria in fresh products.
“They’re trying to reduce the number of ingredients in the food,” Brackett said. “Many of those ingredients were antimicrobial.”
In the facility, a white board next to the high-pressure processor tracks other products that were recently tested: apple sauce, Crisco, mashed potatoes and peanut butter, which has been the source of the highest-profile foodborne illness outbreaks in recent decades.
In 2016, Conagra agreed to pay an $8-million fine plus $3.2 million in cash forfeitures for its role in an outbreak that sickened hundreds in the mid-2000s. The culprit was Peter Pan peanut butter contaminated with salmonella. It was the largest criminal fine to date in a U.S. food safety case.
Fortunately, the peanut butter sitting on store shelves now is much safer than it was a decade ago, Brackett said. Technology has advanced and new protocols have been established. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which became law in 2011, requires food producers to create better safety measures. Companies and regulatory agencies are paying more attention to products like peanut butter that previously posed high risks.
Besides the testing and tracking the researchers do at the institute, companies also can come to be trained on good manufacturing processes. Some Kraft Heinz employees, for example, are trained at the institute on how to identify and control the risks of ingredients and processes.