21 November 2012

Profile: Kieran Jordan "Defeating food bug with killer viruses"

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By targeting the listeria bacteria he is seeking how to improve the safety of our foods

Kieran Jordan is a keen amateur historian living in Cork, a county in the south of Ireland.  But his meat and drink is food safety.  Having moved into the area of food science in the 1980s, he has worked through a menu of baddies, studying listeria, E. coli and campylobacter bacteria while at Teagasc, the Irish agricultural research centre.  These are usual suspects in food poisoning. 

These days Jordan is searching for a killer virus.  But the virus he is seeking will improve the safety of our foods by targeting listeria. This listeria bug can be difficult to eliminate. It can cause illness when it contaminates ready-to-eat foods, especially when there is no treatment between preparation and plate.

“If you look hard enough for listeria in a food processing factory, you will find it,” Jordan tells youris.com. “But if you eliminate it from the environment then it can’t get into food.” Jordan’s research takes him to strange places at times.  He has searched samples from sewage treatment plants for a virus type that kills bacteria – a bacteriophage, or phage virus.
His lab has tested viruses that target only listeria bacteria. It is hoped that phage viruses could be sprayed in processing factories, onto floors, walls and equipment. This could eradicate notoriously resistant bugs. “We have found the same strain in one factory for the last 12 years,” Jordan says, adding “So we are looking at bacterial phages as a means to get rid of that.”.

He plans to exchange students with an Austrian partner as part of FoodSeg, an EU-funded project.  Within this endeavour Jordan belongs to a working group, which is looking at how microbial interactions can be used as preventive measures of foodborne diseases – such as his killer phage.

Jordan relishes how close his lab work is to consumers. Indeed his first research project scrutinised a flavour compound in Irish butter.

Married with three children, Jordan’s time after family commitments and the science of food safety is taken up by the past: he’s a deep interest in Irish history, Celtic origins and local historical landmarks.  He has written a book about the old British army barracks in Kilworth, County Cork, where his research organisation (Teagasc) has its dairy science centre.
Last summer, Jordan returned to his home village in Galway to start a parish photographic archive. He arranged for local people’s photographs to be scanned for posterity. This hobby is a long way from listeria in meat factories.  But food contamination has a long history too.   And when people get sick, the authorities must look back and trace the origins. Jordan’s job is to stop or cleanse any contaminated food before it gets to our plates.
 

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