Byron Brehm-Stecher studies functional food ingredients to prevent foodborne illnesses like salmonella. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Dean’s Faculty Fellow prevents foodborne illness

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports roughly 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die annually — making the safety of the global food supply a growing concern.

Researchers like Iowa State University’s Byron Brehm-Stecher are confronting the challenge head-on.

Brehm-Stecher, an associate professor in food science and human nutrition who from 2015 to 2017 has held the inaugural dean’s faculty fellowship in the College of Human Sciences, studies the detection and elimination of foodborne pathogens like salmonella and listeria.

His research is funded in part by his College of Human Sciences endowed fellowship that has provided $30,000 each year for two years, allowing him to fund a postdoctoral research position.

“Successful research requires several key ingredients: ingenuity, luck, teams of talented people, funding, and time,” Brehm-Stecher said.

In his time at Iowa State, Brehm-Stecher has secured funding of more than $5 million from public and private sources. He acquired a $60,000 flow cytometer — a device that enables the rapid detection of bacteria in foods and beverages — for his rapid microbial detection and control laboratory by submitting a winning essay.

Armed with cutting-edge technology, dedicated researchers, and the drive to make the world a safer place, the Brehm-Stecher lab studies functional food ingredients, those that exhibit health-promoting or disease-preventing benefits.

Brehm-Stecher said these substances may be obtained from natural, plant-based sources, including garlic, green tea, and others.

Some functional food ingredients possess chelating activity — the ability to bind metal ions such as iron, magnesium, or calcium. These metals may be of nutritional or structural importance to pathogenic bacteria, so chelators have the potential to impact cellular processes and reduce the fitness of pathogens such as salmonella.

“We’re studying natural molecules and testing their chelation ability,” Brehm-Stecher said. “Although synthetic compounds may make good preservatives, food companies want something on the label that ingredient-conscious consumers will embrace, such as naturally-sourced chelators.”

“Ideally, functional ingredients will act together to produce a greater effect than expected from the sum of their individual activities,” he said. “In a synergistic combination, antimicrobials work together to pack a bigger punch.”

In addition to the chelator work, Brehm-Stecher’s work on listeria prevention, funded by the Midwest Dairy Association, is helping the dairy industry combat the difficult pathogen.

“Listeria is able to persist in dairy production environments, making its home in difficult-to-clean fixtures like floor drains,” he said. “We’re interested in developing new sanitizers that are not easily rinsed away and that can bring the fight to listeria where it dwells.”

Whether in drains or deli drawers, microorganisms pose a lesser threat under Brehm-Stecher’s watch. He said he believes that with effective partnerships, researchers can offer more options for combatting human pathogens.

“Collaborative efforts, like synergistic antimicrobials, pack a bigger punch and help provide the food industry with solid alternatives,” Brehm-Stecher said.