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UAMS Spinoff Safe Foods Could Bring State Bonanza

7 min read

Safe Foods Corp. of North Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences stand to reap millions of dollars from a chemical treatment being marketed as the solution to

several potentially fatal food-borne illnesses.

Poultry plants, a major part of Arkansas’ agricultural economic base, would be among the beneficiaries of the new treatment.

Safe Foods is gearing up to market a new food safety product developed in 1994 by researchers at UAMS. When properly diluted and applied, the formula greatly reduces most microbial contamination during the processing of poultry, fish, beef, pork, lamb and other meats, as well as vegetables and fruits.

The product — now going by its trademark name, Cecure — has attracted the interest of food producers and processors around the world because of its effectiveness against four of the major food-borne pathogens that make people sick — e. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and listeria. The formula also is effective against the microorganisms staphylococcus, arcobacter and aeromonas bacillus.

There’ve been enough foods scares and meat recalls in recent years to make many consumers wary of certain products and certain food processors.

Every year, 9,000 Americans die from food-borne illnesses, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control say another 76 million are treated for illnesses related to contaminated food, at an estimated cost of $22 billion. Around the world, 20,000 die every day from food-borne illnesses in the developing countries, the CDC says.

And the economic impact on companies that must recall meat products and then face likely lawsuits can be catastrophic. Just ask Red Hudson, former head of Hudson Foods Inc. of Rogers, who had to sell out to rival Tyson Foods Inc. after e. coli was found in beef from one of his processing plants.

The beauty of Cecure, a synthetic compound — cetyl pyridinium chloride (CPC) — is it has been used safely for more than 50 years in mouthwashes such as Scope and throat lozenges such as Cepacol.

What’s more, it is undetectable on food. It doesn’t change the color, texture, appearance, odor or — perhaps most importantly — the taste of the food, says Curtis Coleman, president and chief executive officer of Safe Foods.

“The potential of such a product is incredible,” Coleman said. “Lots of things could happen, but it looks really good.”

Word of the product has spread throughout the food industry, and Safe Foods is anxiously awaiting final approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the new use of CPC.

Currently, the only other method of killing harmful bacteria in food products is irradiation. Coleman said Cecure has at least three advantages over irradiation:

• Food processors won’t have to alter their production methods;

• Cecure is less expensive;

• Cecure prevents recontamination, while irradiation does not.

The Discovery

Danny Lattin, Ph.D., headed the UAMS research team that discovered the product that now holds the potential of helping to ensure the safety of the world’s food supply. Lattin now is the dean of the College of Pharmacy at South Dakota State University.

“Quaternary ammonium compounds have been used for decades in mouthwash,” Lattin said when Safe Foods was formed last year. “We found that this safe chemical also kills e.coli, salmonella, listeria campylobacter and other bacteria. In addition, it has a positive residual effect. Once applied, it keeps on killing bacteria that may present themselves afterwards.”

The university applied for a “use patent” for the product from the U.S. Patent Office after studying the research team’s work. The first of several patents was granted in 1994, and developmental work on the project continued.

But it was four years later before Carl Rosenbaum, owner of Arkansas Glass Container at Jonesboro, and now on the board of Safe Foods, heard a presentation on the product from Dr. Timothy O’Brien, director of UAMS’s new Biomedical Biotechnology Center. At the time, Rosenbaum was interested in finding something to sterilize his glass containers. But when O’Brien told him of the product that kills bacteria in food, Rosenbaum recognized the significance and potential of the discovery.

He called his son-in-law, Curtis Coleman, and his daughter, Kathryn Coleman, who owned a software development company in Fayetteville, to see if they were interested in the product. After meeting with the staff at UAMS, Coleman looked at the patents, researched the marketability of CPC, talked to people in the food industry and found a tremendous interest, he said.

Recent Environmental Protection Agency standards had “put a lot of people on the ropes,” Coleman said, and they are looking for a cost-efficient and safe method of making their food products safer.

Coleman incorporated Safe Foods in January 1999 and bought the patent rights from the UA, giving the company worldwide exclusive rights to the existing, pending and future patents for the application of CPC.

Coleman has been working since that time to get Food and Drug Administration approval of Cecure. He said he expects to receive approval by October.

“It takes intense commitment,” Coleman said, to hold out until the government gives final approval.

Coleman said the company has conducted pilot projects at food processing plants to help determine the appropriate method for applying Cecure, the correct level of dilution and the amount required for complete coverage.

At present, Coleman figures it takes about 8/10 of a cent to sanitize a chicken and about 26 cents to process an entire beef carcass.

The potential market is enormous since about 8 billion chickens and 29 million pounds of beef are processed yearly in the U.S. Around the globe, poultry, beef, pork and veal production is more than 400 billion pounds a year.

What does that mean to Safe Foods? Coleman conservative estimates annual revenue of $300-$400 million in the next four to five years. And it could be a lot higher.

“We’ve been blessed by being at the right place at the right time,” Coleman said.

The UAMS Connection

Dr. Harry P. Ward, chancellor at UAMS, sees this and other biomedical technology invented by university staff and patented by the university as part of the school’s goal of turning its research into economic gain for Arkansas.

In past years, such research likely would have been licensed to an existing company — usually outside Arkansas. The university now works to identify research that can be patented and produced in Arkansas, according to O’Brien.

The university doesn’t put its research products up for bid but “tries to promote the product to everyone in the biotech business” and then seeks to identify a partner that can create a spinoff company to turn the research into a marketable product, O’Brien said.

So far, nine start-up companies are operating, O’Brien said, and UAMS retains an ownership stake in most of them. UAMS owns one-fifth of Safe Foods and will also get 5 percent in royalties from the sales of Cecure. Safe Foods paid a small up-front fee for the licensing rights, O’Brien said.

The Biomedical Biotechnology Center, begun in 1994, encourages cooperation between UMS researchers and private industry by transfer of patent and licensing agreements. Since it was started, UAMS has filed 115 patent applications with 45 patents issued and 70 pending.

O’Brien said UAMS researchers are generating about 25-30 patents a year that provide opportunities for licensing and in-state commercial development through Arkansas BioVentures, the biotechnology economic program started in 1997 by the BBC.

The money that comes back to the school is shared with the research team, the College of Pharmacy in Safe Foods’ case, and with the university system. Some of the revenue will go to pay off the patent costs, O’Brien said.

Safe Foods is continuing to develop the product through a research grant at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for its poultry treatment and with Kansas State University for its beef treatment, Coleman said.

Cecure will be manufactured in Michigan by Zeeland Chemical Inc., a subsidiary of Cambrex Corp. under an agreement signed with Safe Foods. Coleman said any new facility needed to meet the demand for Cecure would be built in Arkansas, along with a high-tech food safety laboratory.

“We do not see anyone else in the market today that is offering the broad spectrum of food-safety products that we’ll have,” Coleman said.

He also foresees developing Cecure as a consumer product that could be sprayed on foods at home.

Safe Foods recently hired Dr. Amy L. Waldroup, tenured professor of poultry science at the University of Arkansas, as director of research and development.

“It’s very rare for someone to leave a secure position to go into private enterprise,” Coleman said. “Dr. Waldroup is one of the most respected food safety scientists in the country. She has looked at every food-safety product developed in the past 10 to 12 years. [Her decision to join Safe Foods] speaks volumes to the industry, increases our credibility with the food industry and enhances our expectation for FDA approval.”

Waldroup has served as a poultry science professor at the University of Arkansas since 1987 and will continue as an adjunct professor. She also chairs Arkansas’ Operation Food Safety program for public schools. She has been published or cited in more than 100 technical and scientific journal articles.

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