Food Microbes: Where They Come From and Why I Can’t See My Meals the Same Way Anymore
San Francisco is an incredible food city. David Chang, the chef of Momofuku Noodle Bar, writes in his book, Eat A Peach:
“The Bay Area has the best produce in the country, which had given rise to a culinary approach that prioritized ingredients above all else.”
A California Native and My Love for Food
As a California native, I felt exactly what David Chang was saying. I took for granted the incredible fruits and vegetables I could access year-round from my local grocery stores and farmers markets. It wasn’t until I journeyed to the Midwest for my PhD that my access to fresh fruits and vegetables dwindled in the wintertime but exploded in the summers. In California, fresh produce was at my fingertips at any moment due to my close proximity to some of the most amazing agriculture in the United States (and also the complete lack of seasons).
Enjoying the sights of my local farmers market. Heirloom tomatoes, anyone?
I went to Universities that had strong agriculture programs, but I didn’t know the first thing about this world until very recently. It was my newfound interest in wine that taught me about how soils, terroir, water access, and climate changed so much about the liquid in my glass. This love for wine translated to a growing interest in local farms close to my beloved hometown of San Francisco. I often find myself escaping to olallieberry, blackberry, and strawberry U-picks in July around Santa Cruz. Or journeying to Sebastopol for apple picking. Even the beautiful flower farms and pumpkin farms near Half Moon Bay make me excited for what each month has to bring.
Strawberry picking at Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, CA. Other great places in the area include Blue House Farm in San Gregorio and R&R Fresh Farms in Pescadero (they have blackberries & olallieberries, too).
Could I do anything in this area? Could OmniVis help?
As my love for local farms and produce grew, I wondered how I could apply my skills to better serve my community. I am a biomedical engineer who devoted so much of my education to medical diagnostics. How could I cross disciplines? But there are some fundamentals that remain true across agriculture, the environment, and patients — pathogens can cause disease in any living thing and in the end hurt businesses all across the board.
This year I investigated how our detection technology could be used for food. OmniVis already developed detection methods for cholera, a waterborne pathogen that can be found in seafood products like oysters. Now I wanted to see how I could use my technology that could affect the growers in my own backyard who work so hard to produce the food that ends up on my table day after day.
Don’t worry, oysters. I still love you. Some oysters from Hog Island up in Tomales Bay, CA.
Opening the CDC webpage a few months ago, I read about recalls for oat milk, ice cream, flour, and leafy greens. Wait, leafy greens? That rang a bell. My mind transported me to prior “breaking news” stories of spinach and romaine lettuce recalls in my local grocery stores or from nearby restaurants. A lot of the leafy greens provided nationwide are also grown a mere 2 hour drive down HWY 101 from San Francisco. Huh…
Where do these bad microbes even come from?
These local growers are bending over backwards to make sure they are providing consumers with safe food. Seriously, thank your local farmers. They are worried about E. coli, Salmonella, or Listeria from (1) overhead sprinklers, (2) to the soils they use, (3) to wildlife exposure, and (4) even post-harvest (think processing machines, food production, handlers). But sometimes these bad microbes can still sneak their way onto my lettuce during any of these 4 parts of the process.
Did you know that on average $993M is spent on litigation costs to farmers from food related illness? Whoa. And $10M is spent per food recall. Yikes.
Now, our OmniVis device has expanded to test for food related pathogens. We are developing assays for pathogens like E. coli to use at any step along the food chain. Detecting bad microbes at any step, from seed to farm to table, would help growers, food production facilities, or even restaurants keep their clientele safe. That’s exciting.
Throwing away bad food from dangerous bacteria doesn’t have to be a cost of doing business anymore.
Now, it’s time for a late lunch.
If you’re working in this space, I would love to speak with you and learn more about your experience.