Foodborne pathogens are tiny microscopic organisms hidden in food that can really make a person sick, and in extreme cases – die. Ranging from more common ones, like salmonella, to others that have the potential to stop the muscles in your lungs from breathing in and out. But if you are unfortunate enough to have fallen ill with one of these foodborne pathogens, it begs the question: Was this preventable?
Well, fortune may have just swayed our way. Researchers from the University of Alberta have developed a foodborne pathogen device that is accurate and quick on the ball according to recent research.
“Most methods for screening foodborne pathogens are relatively slow, requiring 24 to 48 hours for results, and resulting in frequent food recalls if pathogens are found,” explains Patrick Pilarski, an engineer in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and a member of the team that was brought together five years ago to design the instrument.
“The results of our recent study set a new standard in rapid and accurate testing for bacteria in a wide range of consumables. It is ready for commercialization. Someone without any expertise in microbiology could perform the test with a single push of a button, and produce results within one shift, for example, at a meat processing plant.”
The device has been called the GelCycler Mark II, and in a recent study by PLOS One is was shown to be capable of detecting and reporting E. coli contamination in 41 minutes.
The key to the device involves placing a small amount of food on a cassette containing desiccated hydrogel, which is the elimination of the bacteria enrichment phase currently used in most testing techniques.
“Because most testing platforms cannot detect a single bacterium, enrichment protocols are routinely used in which bacteria obtained from defined amounts of food product are cultured in broth to increase the number of organisms to a level that is detectable,” explains Lynn McMullen, a U of A food microbiologist and co-author of the study.
“Usually the enrichment step takes 12 to 48 hours, resulting in significant delays in identifying food products harbouring pathogenic contaminants, whereas our device vastly shortens the time most testing platforms need to detect a single unenriched bacterium per capillary reaction. We have coupled the new device with a very short enrichment process that allows us to get a result in less than seven hours.”
In addition to detecting E. coli, the device can identify Salmonella enterica, Campylobacter jejuni andListeria monocytogenes.
“The reality is that currently, meat processors are often holding product to wait for results. The GelCycler Mark II can help get it out the door quicker and reduce the food safety risks for consumers,” says McMullen.
“As far as I am concerned, there is no excuse for foodborne illness and disease because it is preventable. Prevention starts at the farm and goes through the various production phases to the consumer. So, having a rapid testing device that allows processors to be better able to detect problems before they are shipped out the door is an important contribution.”
According to the Government of Canada, there are an estimated 4 million Canadians that are affected by a foodborne illness every year. That is one in eight Canadians that leads to over 11,000 hospitalizations and over 200 deaths.
“This work is an important step in food safety, and in how an idea is generated to solve a problem,” says Cornelia Kreplin, executive director of sustainable production/food innovation at Alberta Innovates. “We understand that in today’s marketplace, the key is to accelerate the timeline from an idea to a product. Bringing researchers from different disciplines together to solve problems is essential to that objective.”
With more preventative measures, Canadians will be able to eat with freedom, the health care system can redirect time and money to other debilitating diseases and disorders, and at the same time, save environmental resources.