Saturday, March 28, 2009

The temperature's rising (but why?)

I was recently asked to explain some of my comments on detection of faecal coliforms. <See Coliforms and Faecal Contamination Wednesday, July 18, 2007>

I have extracted the essentials of the questions below:

“Since the coliforms when tested… are grown at optimum growth temperature of 37C, why would you need to raise the faecal coliform test temperature to 44.5C to show thermotolerant E. coli are present? Why would food safety people be looking for thermotolerant bacteria in food rather than bacteria that grow at normal temperatures?”

In my article, I provided some background information on "faecal indicator microorganisms", which we use to show that a food or water sample may have been contaminated with faeces. These tests originated in the early days of public health services and safety of public water supply. The coliforms are easier to detect and enumerate than are Salmonella or Shigella or faecal viruses. (Salmonella and Shigella are not coliforms). The reason for incubating at 44.5C to demonstrate the presence of Escherichia coli dates from 1904 when Eijkman suggested it as a means of separating the "B. coli" originating in the faeces of warm blooded animals from the strains characteristic of cold blooded animals and thus providing us with a means to detect faecal contamination of water supplies by warm blooded animals, including humans.

So the answer to the first question is “we are not particularly interested in thermotolerant coliforms; rather we want to show that the water supply may have been contaminated by human wastes and hence potentially contains faecal pathogens”.

Having said that, of course there are other areas of food microbiology where we are very interested in the presence of thermotolerant or thermophilic bacteria. If we pasteurize milk with plate heat exchangers (the standard method) we may find that the cooling stages become colonized by thermotolerant streptococci, which may cause spoilage. In the case of canned foods, we find that some sporeforming bacteria can survive even a very rigorous thermal process. These bacteria are of no public health significance, but they may cause spoilage if the cans are held at high temperatures (greater than about 40C) as might be found in storage facilities in very hot countries or in a restaurant kitchen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tha’s gorra eat a peck o’ muck afore tha dies.

For those readers not lucky enough to have been born in Yorkshire, northern England, an approximate translation of this old expression is “You will eat a barrel-full of dirt during your lifetime”.

What brought that on? According to Abby Alford, writing in the Western Mail (1), there may have been some scientific basis to the saying. Bangor University lecturer, Dr Prysor Williams, believes that an obsession with cleanliness reduces contact with dirt and thus with harmful bacteria. Our immune systems become weakened, leaving us susceptible to infection. Unfortunately, the evidence for this view is somewhat lacking, though Dr. Williams is not the only one to have argued this.

Stuart Levy, Director of the Center of Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University, provided substantial evidence that the substitution of anti-bacterial agents for good old soap and water increases the ability of bacteria to develop resistance. A few bacterial cells containing genes that confer resistance to the antibiotics can protect neighbouring sensitive cells, rendering the antibacterial agent ineffective. Levy’s group tested the ability of Escherichia coli to mutate to become resistant to triclosan, which inhibits an enzyme involved in fatty acid biosynthesis and thus interferes with membrane biosynthesis. The work was published in the prestigious journal Nature.

In a carefully constructed randomized, double-blind trial, Elaine Larson and her co-workers have also shown that using antibacterial home cleaning and hand-washing products has no significant effect on the incidence of infectious disease symptoms (2).

The take-home message is that while cleanliness may be next to godliness, we do not live in a sterile environment. If we try too hard to protect ourselves and our children from microorganisms, we don’t give our immune systems the chance to develop resistance to bacterial pathogens.


(2) Annals of Internal Medicine, 2 March 2004, Volume 140 • Number 5 321