Nestle to Boost Study of Harmful Food Infections

By JOHN HEILPRIN | May 31, 2013

Nestle SA, the world’s biggest food and drink company, is boosting research to tackle the threat of ever-stronger strains of bacteria and germs in food manufacturing.

The Vevey, Switzerland-based company said Thursday it will initially focus on several types of foodborne bacteria – particularly a dangerous strain of bacterium E. coli that infects people and pumps out a poison called Shiga toxin – and viruses Norovirus and Hepatitis A.

A European outbreak of the Shiga toxin in the summer of 2011 infected about 4,000 people, mostly in Germany, and caused 50 deaths.

Company officials and industry experts looked over more than 20 new microbiology labs that Nestle opened Thursday within its research center outside Lausanne, the last time they will be shown publicly before sealing them off and restricting access to scientists in protective clothing.

They described the spotless new labs as among the world’s most advanced microbiology research facilities, and the most sophisticated in the food industry, some at biosafety containment level three, on a scale of one to four.

Nestle’s chief technology officer, Werner Bauer, said his biggest worry is antibiotic-resistant germs, and the company needs to stay a step ahead of new threats from evolving pathogens such as drug-resistant strains of Salmonella or the E. coli that produces the Shiga toxin.

John O’Brien, a former chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland who is now head of food safety at Nestle’s research center, said the company “cannot afford errors” as it aims for better ways of processing food that kills germs but keeps as much of the nutrients and taste as possible. That requires a lot of genetic and enzymatic testing.

“With the increasing problem of emerging food-borne pathogens, such as the Shiga toxin-producing strains of E. coli, a risk assessment is only possible once we know what genes are carried by that organism,” O’Brien told officials. “So we need to get down to the genome level increasingly. Now, that requires a lot of molecular detective work, which is why we are investing so much in molecular tools.”

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