For months this past spring, the public was exposed to frightening news and a potentially deadly pathogen due to an outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce. The epidemic was the largest in over a decade, affecting nearly 200 people in 35 states, and killing five. Despite the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) best efforts, the source of the infection was never detected, although the agency believes it came from the Yuma region of Arizona. Romaine harvest season ended in April, and the shelf-life for lettuce is limited, so the danger is likely over. However, new salmonella infections in eggs and melon have already cropped up, and another infection is almost certain to happen in the future.
Sometime next year, volunteers in the U.S. could start swallowing capsules stuffed with genetically engineered E. coli. The experimental pills, designed by Synlogic, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, synthetic biology startup, contain bacteria designed to treat a rare metabolic disease by recognizing when they reach a person's stomach and then soaking up large amounts of ammonia. The treatment, slated for its first clinical test during 2017, is an early example of what the company's founders call "synthetic biotics"--or intestinal bacteria endowed with genetic programs that allow them to sense something going on in the body and then take an action, like deliver a drug or release a colored chemical useful in a diagnostic test. The idea of swallowing genetically modified bacteria might seem odd. But purpose-built germs could be a new way to take over physiological functions that people's own bodies can't perform if they are sick, and a substitute for pills or injections.
A team of scientists led by researchers at the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety in Griffin has developed a machine-learning approach that could lead to quicker identification of the animal source of certain Salmonella outbreaks. In the research, published in the January 2019 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, Xiangyu Deng and his colleagues used more than a thousand genomes to predict the animal sources, especially livestock, of Salmonella Typhimurium. Deng, an assistant professor of food microbiology at the center, and Shaokang Zhang, a postdoctoral associate with the center, led the project, which also included experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Translational Genomics Research Institute. According to the Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System, close to 3,000 outbreaks of foodborne illness were reported in the U.S. from 2009 to 2015. Of those, 900 -- or 30 percent -- were caused by different serotypes of Salmonella, including Typhimurium, Deng said.
While Chipotle's (CMG) latest crisis -- the temporary closing of a Virginia restaurant last week after a sick employee reportedly caused some patrons to get the norovirus -- has been making headlines, the company's turmoil really dates back all the way to 2013, creating four long years of drama for the Mexican chain. It first started in August of 2013, when the fast causal chain made news in a Bloomberg report that said the company's meat was not actually completely "antibiotic-free," as it claimed. A Chipotle spokesman told Bloomberg that they do allow beef producers to use antibiotics to treat disease but won't allow them to routinely use antibiotics to prevent diseases and promote faster growth. Chipotle later retracted that statement, but two years later, it admitted that it has allowed its farmers to occasionally use "antibiotics" during a pork shortage. Then in July of 2015, its first E. coli outbreak was reported in Seattle, where five people reportedly got sick.