Safety Implications of the Presence of Nucleic Acids of Inactivated Microorganisms in Foods

Although microorganisms (including bacteria, viruses and microscopic parasites)are ubiquitous in the food chain, the vast majority are not hazardous. Indeed, they are integral to many food production processes (e.g. fermentation), as well as profoundly influencing the final appearance, taste and quality of many foods. They also play a significant role in food spoilage. Nucleic acids are a primary constituent of all living organisms. These macromolecules, including deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA), are composed of nucleotides and store and transfer genetic information. Nucleic acids constitute 5–15% of the dry weight of all living cells. They can exist as either single- or double-stranded RNA or as single- or double-stranded DNA. The individual nucleotides are purines (guanine and adenine) and pyrimidines (cytosine and thymine in DNA or cytosine and uracil in RNA). The sequence in which these nucleotides occur forms the basis for storing and copying genetic information and provides a mechanism for the translation of information to functional proteins.

The purpose of this report is to provide guidance on the interpretation of results for the detection of nucleic acids from pathogenic microorganisms in raw materials and processed food products, including the detection of inactivated organisms. The effect of food processing, particularly thermal treatment, on bacterial and viral integrity and their nucleic acids are discussed. This report also considers the implications of pathogen-derived nucleic acid ingestion, particularly as related to horizontal gene transfer.

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This report was commissioned by the former Emerging Microbiological Issues Task Force, now part of the Microbiological Food Safety Task Force.

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