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Better eating with science

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a book that opened America's eyes to a grotesque lack of hygiene in food processing plants and led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Over the last century, the work of industry and government has ensured such a high level of food quality that it can be easy to take the pursuit of safety for granted.

As recent E. coli and salmonella contaminations illustrate, Sinclair's point is worth remembering.

In a perfect world, guidelines resembling a system known as Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs, would always be followed. GAPs, devised and maintained by researchers, could make outbreaks of contaminated meat, fruits and vegetables virtually nonexistent. Manure would never find its way into water supplies. Food production workers and those who prepare and cook our food would always wash their hands.

Obviously, this isn't a perfect world. Those who supply our food should perform regular inspections to ensure that precautions maintained to the best possible extent. Our efforts cannot end there, though. A changing world demands that we change our way of thinking about food safety.

Food distribution systems are becoming faster and more organized; however, they also provide more opportunities for harmful insects, bacteria and other pathogens to spread. With a broadening cultural appetite for foods from around the world, the potential for this problem knows no bounds.

Pests are spreading to new areas. New strains of bacteria seem to be working their way into unexpected places, such as recent batches of salmonella-infected tomatoes that have been linked to illnesses across the country.

Food safety begins on the farm. Agricultural and food safety research, like that conducted at the University of Florida and our Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, can give us the knowledge and tools to understand and combat these problems. Entomologists work with farmers to develop ways of rotating pesticides so that insects don't get a chance to develop resistance. Our researchers, working in organizations such as the National Plant Diagnostic Network, can identify when diseases such as citrus canker, citrus greening and soybean rust start to affect our crops and determine how to prevent their spread.

Under UF's Emerging Pathogens Initiative, we are rethinking the way plants, animals and people carry bacteria, and what new tools modern science can give us to detect and eliminate them. Eric Triplett, the UF chair of microbiology and cell science, is investigating how plants might internalize bacteria by soaking them up through their roots -thus carrying dangerous pathogens where surface sterilization techniques can't reach.

Weihong Tan, a researcher in UF's department of chemistry, is developing fluorescent nanoparticles that can detect a single cell of E. coli in a sample of ground beef. Richard Linton, director of the center for food safety engineering at Purdue University, is investigating how to sanitize fresh produce by exposing it to chloride dioxide gas, which would be far more effective than current methods.

This type of research not only ensures that our food sources will be safe, it also opens possibilities for countries that find themselves no better than the United States depicted in Sinclair's novel. UF microbiologist Zhonglin Mou is trying to create a breed of plant with an enhanced immune system that can eliminate pathogenic bacteria. Such a crop could dramatically reduce the spread of food-borne disease in areas where, because of cost, contamination simply cannot be avoided.

A safe food supply should never be taken for granted. We must continue GAP and other food safety programs, cutting-edge research, worker education programs - and remember to wash our hands. Food safety starts on the farm and must be maintained right to our very dinner tables.

Dr. Jimmy Cheek is University of Florida senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.