Scientist Discovers New Application for Copper That Can Be Used to Improve Food Safety

Mar 19, 2013 03:20 PM EDT | By Jon Novak

Michigan Technological University researcher Jaroslaw Drelich and professor of materials science and engineering, has discovered a way to destroy harmful microbes before they have a chance to make their way into our bodies. His discovery was of a copper-based antimicrobial compound that, if implanted in the inert compound vermiculite - typically found in potting soil - it would reduce or eliminate harmful bacterias usually found in food products.

The discovery, however, was more the method of prevention rather than the use of a new compound. Drelich found that if you embed nanoparticles of copper into vermiculite it could prove to be an effective way of making the food supply safer.

Initial tests proved the theory and method was sound. When used in local lake water, the nanoparticles of copper combined with the inexpensive compound vermiculite killed 100 percent of E.Coli bacteria in the sample. The combination of compounds also proved effective in exterminating Staphylococcus aureus, the common strain of staph bacteria. To reinforce examples, there have been other studies that prove copper is toxic to Listeria, Salmonella and the antibiotic-resistant bacteria Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is a bacterium responsible for difficult treatment infections in humans.

Drelich explained how copper is harmful to microorganisms other than just bacteria, such as viruses and fungi, and that it could be found useful within the food industry. If the copper-vermiculite compound were incorporated into food packaging materials, it could be of some aid to preventing an assortment of foodborne diseases.

The copper-vermiculite material does mix well with other materials, like cardboard and plastic, meaning it can be viably integrated in foodstuff packaging: packing beads, boxes and cellulose-based egg cartons, for example.

The most important factor in the study is that, while we know it will do an effective job of destroying harmful bacteria within food, the cost of the copper-vermiculite is very inexpensive, at about 25 cents per pound. The low price of the preventer should, and hopefully will, influence the food supply industry. The fruits and vegetable industry could immediately benefit.

"When you make a discovery like this, it's hard to envision all the potential applications," said Drelich in an interview. "It could even be mixed into that wad of dollar bills in your wallet. Money is the most contaminated product on the market."  

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