The Laboratory That Infects Salad With Deadly Pathogens

Troubleshooting the contamination of greens

Deep in the Illinois Institute of Technology is a Biosafety Level 3 certified containment unit: one of the only places in the country that intentionally infects spinach with live, potentially deadly E. coli pathogens. Lab workers don moon suits, step through an airlock, and then send 500 pounds of salad splashing down a flume with 5,000 gallons of contaminated water.

Since growers in Salinas work with more mesclun than scientists can fit in a 500 ml beaker, the future of food safety can’t realistically be tested in a beaker.

“When you scale things up huge, you can’t put the factory inside a hood,” Bob Brackett, the head of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health, says. “What you do is put the person inside a spacesuit to work with a large volume and simulate what would happen in real life.”

In other words, 500 pounds of spinach instead of 20 leaves. Samples get doused with sanitizing solutions and biofilm disrupters. The center’s also experimenting with ultrasonic washing machines that look like hand-held blenders that shake germs—with one kilowatt vibrations—off of wet leaves.

What happens to all the food when they’re done testing it? Everything gets cooked in an autoclave and then tossed out. All in the name of safer salad.