(Inside Science TV) -- While the food we buy may look safe, it's the bacteria that we can't see that make it unsafe to eat.
This year, one in six Americans will get sick from food poisoning.
It can cause serious health problems. Washing and cooking food properly helps to prevent the spread of food-borne illness, but bacteria can still lurk on and inside food.
"It has many routes to get into not only food animal products but also things like leafy greens, and even processed foods," said Paul Ebner, a microbiologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Now, scientists have a new way to kill bad bacteria, using bacteriophages -- also called phages -- which are viruses that reproduce in bacteria, and can destroy bacteria in food.
"What we're trying to do is harness the antibacterial properties of phages and use them to target specific pathogens, like E. coli or Salmonella," Ebner explained.
In tests using ground beef infected with E. coli, researchers treated the meat with a liquid containing phages. The viruses dock onto E.coli cells, inject their own DNA, and then multiply and reproduce inside the bacterial cells, causing them to explode and die.
"We reduced the E. coli concentrations by sometimes 99.9 percent, which is a large reduction," said Ebner.
The treatment is harmless to humans -- it only targets the bacteria, but it could be the next best thing in wiping out food-borne illness outbreaks.
"It's another tool that we can use to ensure the safety of our food," Ebner said.
The next step is for researchers to identify the phages that work the best for other bacteria like salmonella.