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Keywords:

  • bacteriophages;
  • phages;
  • food safety;
  • foodborne illness

Abstract

Bacteriophages (also called ‘phages’) are viruses that kill bacteria. They are arguably the oldest (3 billion years old, by some estimates) and most ubiquitous (total number estimated to be 1030–1032) known organisms on Earth. Phages play a key role in maintaining microbial balance in every ecosystem where bacteria exist, and they are part of the normal microflora of all fresh, unprocessed foods. Interest in various practical applications of bacteriophages has been gaining momentum recently, with perhaps the most attention focused on using them to improve food safety. That approach, called ‘phage biocontrol’, typically includes three main types of applications: (i) using phages to treat domesticated livestock in order to reduce their intestinal colonization with, and shedding of, specific bacterial pathogens; (ii) treatments for decontaminating inanimate surfaces in food-processing facilities and other food establishments, so that foods processed on those surfaces are not cross-contaminated with the targeted pathogens; and (iii) post-harvest treatments involving direct applications of phages onto the harvested foods. This mini-review primarily focuses on the last type of intervention, which has been gaining the most momentum recently. Indeed, the results of recent studies dealing with improving food safety, and several recent regulatory approvals of various commercial phage preparations developed for post-harvest food safety applications, strongly support the idea that lytic phages may provide a safe, environmentally-friendly, and effective approach for significantly reducing contamination of various foods with foodborne bacterial pathogens. However, some important technical and nontechnical problems may need to be addressed before phage biocontrol protocols can become an integral part of routine food safety intervention strategies implemented by food industries in the USA. © 2013 Society of Chemical Industry