In 2013, Siobhan Reilly, PhD, was working with a pet food company that suddenly found itself in the middle of a crisis.
“It wasn’t exactly a salmonella outbreak in the typical sense, but some human in the plant came into contact with it and got sick,” Reilly says. The FDA reacted and the company was left with the repercussions and a salmonella case that left them stumped.
The bacteria was thriving in a pair of extruders that could not be opened up for sanitation. Add in the fact that the pet food production consisted of turning food waste into product, so sanitation was not built into the system, and the problem worsened.
“We were staring at a situation where we had huge pieces of equipment that had been used over the last 20 years and there was a lot of buildup of material inside the equipment. We couldn’t get rid of the problem,” Reilly says. “We were wishing there was a magic fairy dust you could just sprinkle over everything and it would be good.”
That’s when Reilly used her research experience at Oklahoma State University to develop a probiotic that could work as a magic fairy dust of sorts. Her research showed there was a way to combat pathogens, but it wasn’t clear how to get the probiotic into the plant and into the machinery.
There was a lot of research looking at good bacteria combating bad bacteria, and there were probiotic products, but most of them were never designed to be reintroduced to the environment.
“We figured how to get a powder into these systems. We started researching, finding some strains that would be competitive and validating that they would target these pathogens,” she says. “We selected the right one and put it into a highly aerosolizable powder and put it into the system.”
Four years later, Reilly heads up Log10 Food Safety Biotechnology, a Ponca City, Oklahoma-based company that supports the food industry with comprehensive microbiological safety services.
Log10 produces weekly probiotic batches that are customized for the specific needs of the company’s clients. The probiotics are in the form of very fine powders — think blowing a handful of baby powder into the air — that invade every nook and cranny of a piece of equipment, even equipment that might have 20 years of buildup that has formed its own ecosystem.
“We pick organisms that are, first, competitive antagonists toward the specific pathogen, and then they should be able to form their own biofilms and become competitive,” Reilly says.
Simply, the food bacteria settle in and knock out the bad bacteria, all without the need to disassemble, or even touch, the machinery.
Log10 has even developed the powders so they can be directly applied to the food. A recent caramel apple project had the company apply a custom formula directly to apples to work against a biological defect. The good bacteria protect against any post-process contamination.
“We’ll go in and a company will have a particular problem and we’ll bring it into the lab and challenge it against our cultures and find one that works,” Reilly says. “Sometimes it’s two or three that we have to select and put back into the system. Of all the thousands of food systems across the country, there’s not one that is the same and you have to approach it that way.”
The weekly production of microorganisms ensures that they are in their most healthy state when applied.
“We’re trying to create a concentrated group of microorganisms that should be fresh and ready to go,” Reilly says. “When we make it up every week, we also QC it and make sure it’s exactly at the level we want it. We don’t want it not to work and by doing it more frequently and checking it all the time, it doesn’t have an age on it.”