Garlic, it turns out, isn't just useful for keeping vampires at bay. Researchers at Washington State University have found that a compound in garlic is 100 times more effective than two popular antibiotics at fighting a bacteria that causes intestinal illness.
For consumers, it means safer food that will have a longer shelf-life. The discovery opens the door to new treatments for raw and processed meats and food preparation surfaces. It should also significantly reduce instances of foodborne illness.
"This work is very exciting to me because it shows that this compound has the potential to reduce disease-causing bacteria in the environment and in our food supply," said Dr. Xiaonan Lu, a postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper.
Michael Konkel, a co-author who has been researching the bacteria - Campylobacter jejuni - for 25 years, says its the first step in developing new strategies to keep food safer.
"Campylobacter," says Konkel, "is simply the most common bacterial cause of food-borne illness in the United States and probably the world."
Some 2.4 million Americans are affected every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with symptoms including diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever. The bacteria are also responsible for triggering nearly one-third of the cases of a rare paralyzing disorder known as Guillain-BarrÃ© syndrome.
Does what antibiotics can't
Most infections stem from eating raw or undercooked poultry or foods that have been cross-contaminated via surfaces or utensils used to prepare poultry. The garlic-derived compound, diallyl sulfide, is able to kill the bacterium when it is protected by a slimy biofilm that makes it 1,000 times more resistant to antibiotics.
The research is still at a basic stage and the scientists say it won't be ready for practical applications anytime soon. But the research team has no doubt that it will. Diallyl sulfide, they say, will be widely used to clean food preparation surfaces. They predict it will also be used as a preservative in packaged foods like potato and pasta salads, coleslaw and deli meats.