On the clock

by Bernard Shire
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Listeria in a petri dish
Rapid testing technology saves processors money and product.

There are a host of new, diverse and most of all, rapid testing technologies that show a lot of promise for food processors in the meat and poultry business.

The technically updated systems promise much faster time-to-results from tests than previous technologies. And they also offer processors a more accurate indication of how safe their food products are, as well as a response to customer demands for increased food safety.

Bill Hogan, founder and CEO of FoodChek Systems Inc. in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, says FoodChek specializes in the development of food safety testing products that are accurate, cost-effective and quick. “The reason for that is food safety is key in today’s world, especially for meat and poultry processors, and delivering safe quality product protects their brand,” he says.

“The sooner a meat or poultry processor finds that that his product is safe for consumers to eat, and that it meets the high-quality food safety standards the processor has set, the sooner it can be sold to consumers,” Hogan says. “From a financial point of view, delivering a product sooner means additional product shelf-life, which results in increased bottom-line operational margins for them.”

Rapid food-safety testing technology is basically focused on three pathogen areas including E. coli O157:H7, Listeria and Salmonella. However, testing for Campylobacter is on the rise. FoodChek has just developed a Listeria environmental test that requires less than 24 hours including the sample enrichment timeline using their patented Actero Enrichment Media. Hogan’s company is doing a lot of work with small processors in the meat and poultry industry.

He notes differences in testing are often dictated by the size of the company doing it. “Big packing companies may do thousands of samples a day from their various plant facilities and who often have their own in-house laboratories. Medium-size and small processors usually send their products out to third-party labs. However whether the processors use in-house or third-party labs, they can all use our Actero Enrichment Media as part of their testing,” Hogan says.

Application specific

Wendy Lauer, marketing manager for the Food Science Division of Bio-Rad Laboratories in Hercules, Calif., says some rapid testing technology is new, while other options are established and not considered novel. “People doing testing first used culture methods, which have evolved to faster methods,” she says. “The rapid testing technology can also be more accurate.”

She notes that culture is still the “gold standard” in food testing. “But newer methods, especially those using rapid testing technology, are faster and can provide better results.

“When you do a culture, you’re looking for a colony, to confirm the pathogen you’re seeking is Salmonella, for example. If it’s definitive, it’s called a confirmation. But not everyone wants to do confirmation. Sometimes a presumptive positive is enough,” Lauer says.

Lauer says economics plays a major role in the push toward ever-faster testing technologies. “By getting results faster, the shelf-life of meat, poultry and other foods could be expanded, if it is released faster,” she says. “And if you’re doing a test-and-hold program, speed of the testing process is even more critical. When you’re holding product, you don’t have to wait as long for the results.”

The company makes test kits and equipment that runs the kits for processors doing their own rapid testing, and for contract microbiology laboratories. The latest rapid testing technology is based on real-time PCR testing and is a DNA-based method.

The move toward rapid testing technology began back around 1980, when people started looking at the whole food-safety and testing issue more strongly. While Bio-Rad has been in the food-safety business for 20 years, today the movement to rapid testing technology is a big part of the company’s business. “This is where science is taking us,” Lauer says. A lot of the impetus for rapid testing is being driven by American food consumers and their interests. “They want food to be safe and they don’t want to get sick. It’s as simple as that,” Lauer says.

Customer driven

Thirty years ago, 3M launched its first 3M Petrifilm Plate – the 3M Petrifilm Aerobic Count Plate. Last month, the company released 3M Petrifilm Rapid Aerobic Count Plate, an easy and accurate test that can find and detect aerobic bacteria counts in just 24 hours for most food products.

It’s important for poultry and meat processors to be able to find aerobic bacteria in a quick and accurate way, because management of those companies must be able to make time-sensitive decisions.

John A. Wadie, US marketing manager for 3M in St. Paul, Minn., says molecular detection systems are an important part of rapid testing technology, as well as the Petrifilm plates.

“The growth of first results testing has reduced result times from five days to one day. That’s a big advance for processors, and saves them both money and products. The processors can make production decisions sooner. What the whole testing issue has come down to is really about shortening the time to get results back.”

Wadie notes there are also tests for shelf life and spoilage of products. “If there’s one week of shelf life, and I can get the test down to one day, that certainly improves the economics for me, doesn’t it?”

The market for rapid test technology for pathogens, environmental factors like food-contact services, and food quality and spoilage factors is growing. It is offered for products during processing, as well as end use for retailers. Stiffer requirements by Walmart for its meat and poultry suppliers are just one example. Other retailers will likely follow suit. “If I’m a processor or a retailer, I have to show my customers or end consumers I’ve done certain things to make sure the food is safe,” he says. Wadie believes the demands will grow throughout the entire supply chain – from the fork all the way back to the farm.

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