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Food Under the Microscope

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 11/07/2011 More stories >>

E. coli cells at 8,000x magnificationon a microwire sensor.

Enter the world of a food microbiologist. Here are E. coli cells at 8,000x magnificationon a microwire sensor. (Photo courtesy: Lin Lu)

A discipline that investigates the thin but important line between what helps and what harms is food microbiology. It looks both at the ways microorganisms are used to create the foods we love (think beer, kim chee, shoyu, bread, and yogurt) and the ways they can contaminate foods, like the pathogens Salmonella and E. coli. With the many outbreaks of food-borne illness lately, this issue is a growing concern.

CTAHR’s food microbiologists include Soojin Jun (HNFAS), who among his many projects aims to save dairies time, money, and resources by altering their old methods of cleaning fouled milk from processing equipment—a task that must be done every 5 to 10 hours— by creating non-stick surfaces bacteria won’t adhere to. Yong Li (HNFAS) is working on better ways to detect pathogenic bacteria in tropical fruit juices—a topic near and dear to Hawai‘i’s safety-conscious fruit growers. But this research field is expanding so fast that a new generation of students is already working to bring their insights to its issues.

CTAHR food microbiologist Yong Li with master’s student Ningjian Liang at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

CTAHR food microbiologist Yong Li with master’s student Ningjian Liang at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

An up-and-coming recruit to the front lines of the microorganism wars is Ningjian Liang, who received her master’s degree this past August under Yong Li’s mentorship. Her research has provided valuable information for food manufacturers and regulatory agencies, successfully establishing a method for rapid detection of live Salmonella cells in lettuce, one of the most common vectors for food poisoning. Her work could greatly improve the accuracy of routine DNA-based testing. At the 2011 meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, she won third place in the Biotechnology Division’s graduate student poster competition for her work on Campylobacter jejuni, a pathogen that can contaminate poultry and dairy products. Last year she won a Student Excellence in Research Award, one of two awarded to CTAHR students out of only three university wide, and she’s captured two awards at the Student Research Symposium as well. She currently oversees Quality Assurance and Food Safety for the Palama Meat Company in Kapolei.

It takes a strong stomach and a steel-trap mind to look at one’s food with a microscope in hand instead of a fork. We’re grateful that Ningjian and CTAHR’s other food microbiologists are willing to look beyond that luscious cheeseburger to the creepycrawlies that call it home.