FDA Researchers Find Salmonella-Killing Bacterium

The agency reported the breakthrough July 8 and said "Team Tomato" has published two studies recently in scientific journals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has posted a report about a team of its microbiologists that has found a bacterium that kills Salmonella but is harmless to human beings. The scientists, dubbed FDA's "Team Tomato," are studying tomatoes on an experimental farm at Virginia Tech's Agriculture and Research Extension Center, which is adjacent to farms that have been the source of Salmonella contamination, according to the July 8 report.

Tomatoes are vulnerable to contamination by Salmonella, which is a common cause of foodborne illness. According to the report, 15 multistate outbreaks of Salmonella contamination of raw tomatoes occurred from 1973 to 2010, with 12 of them occurring since 2000.

"The conditions in which tomatoes thrive are also the conditions in which Salmonella thrive," Eric Brown, Ph.D., director of FDA's Division of Microbiology, said. "But the tomato always presented an extra challenge because it is so short-lived. By the time it looked like contaminated tomatoes could be causing illnesses, the harvest would be gone."

FDA microbiologist Rebecca Bell, Ph.D., is the team’s lead researcher. She said they have collected more than a thousand bacteria in the soil and water, looking for a natural enemy ofSalmonella and ultimately found one: a bacterium called Paenibacillus. FDA will be working with EPA to facilitate the development of an organic treatment containing it that would kill Salmonella and other harmful organisms.

"Bell says this will be a particularly valuable Salmonella-fighting tool in the mid-Atlantic region, where farmers often fumigate six inches down into the soil to kill harmful bacteria. Their methods for doing so may, ironically, create more opportunities for enteric pathogens (gastrointestinal organisms spread by contamination of food), such as Salmonella, to colonize in the roots of the tomato plants," the report states.

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