Meat and poultry processors want faster, more accurate rapid-test results to protect their products, customers, consumers and their own companies from potential food-safety dangers. And rapid-test suppliers are endeavoring to satisfy this demand.

Stronger regulations from the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Food and Drug Administration, as well as the Food Safety Modernization Act, are leading to increased rapid-test usage by industry. Growing food-safety awareness from the public and government also are playing a role in the demand for faster, more accurate tests, says Chris Lopez, technical sales and pricing analyst with San Antonio-based Food Safety Net Services.

“Microbiological testing and high-quality programs are a good starting point for a foundation to ensure the protocols of meat and poultry companies are protecting their products and their business,” he says.

Various platforms of rapid testing use different scientific approaches to detect the microorganism of interest, Lopez says. These platforms usually fall under three main approaches: antibody-based, nucleic acid-based or enzymatic.

Processors’ priorities

Many rapid-test providers tout their tests are user-friendly and that anyone from a trained molecular microbiologist to entry-level lab technician can conduct them.

“When we chose our ATP [adenosine triphosphate] testing system, we looked for the system with accuracy, ease of use and understandable results,” says Darren Toczko, senior manager of food safety with Bar-S Foods Co., Phoenix, Ariz.

“I want accuracy, sensitivity, reproducibility, [lower] costs, time-saving and ease of use,” adds Carl Zerr, director of international food safety and quality assurance with Rastelli Foods Group, Swedesboro, NJ. “The most important thing to me is accuracy.”

Bar-S plants use ATP testing during pre-op inspections. At its corporate off-site laboratory, it uses a Listeria spp. test for processing environmental swabs.

“If the surface is not clean, we know it within seconds,” Toczko says. “ATP testing does not replace Aerobic Plate Count/total plate count or Listeria testing. It is an indication of cleanliness, not of microbe level or type.”

Bar-S’ Listeria spp. testing must be an Association of Analytical Communities (AOAC) method performed in an ISO 17025 laboratory. “Our company lab, which processes samples for four plants, has been ISO 17025-accredited since 2006, with Listeria spp. on its scope of accreditation,” he adds. “Any Listeria method without an enrichment step to allow very low numbers of cells to grow would not be considered. Since Listeria is a slow grower, faster is not always better.”

The test Bar-S uses requires a single-step enrichment and incubation for 40 to 48 hours, Toczko continues. “We stay away from methods which would lead to FSIS scrutiny of our results,” he adds. “It must also be flexible for increases in numbers of samples to be tested without excess increase in time, people or equipment,” he says.

Rastelli Foods Group, a major national US foodservice distributor of beef, lamb, veal, pork, poultry and seafood products, incorporates rapid testing for E. coli O157 and Salmonella. It now uses the FoodChek MICT system for the E. coli O157 test and upon AOAC certification, will also use that company’s Listeria spp test.

“I like the accuracy of the results, the ease of preparation and sample protocols to put everything together,” Zerr says of his E. coli O157 rapid test. “I didn’t need to hire a microbiologist to do the testing.”

The company conducts many in-house screening tests. Zerr still sends bi-weekly samples to an independent lab to confirm that his in-house test results are consistent, but he has reduced this practice by about 90 percent.

Rastelli Foods now samples and tests products for the presence of E. coli O157 pathogens in its ground beef at 15-minute intervals. Before, tests may have been done two or three times a day. Over the first year of increased testing, the company still saved around $14,000 with FoodChek’s system, Zerr says.

Check out technologies

A gap exists between current microbiology diagnostic products and technologies and what is ideally desired in rapid testing by plant QC managers, says William Hogan, president and CEO of FoodChek Systems Inc., Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Faster time-to-results (TTR) enables better decision-making, improved economics and reduced risks, he adds.

FoodChek’s patented MICT magnetic nanotechnology system eliminates human error by using a testing process that includes a bench-top electronic magnetic diagnostic reader. The FoodChek system is the only food-safety pathogen screening test using nanotechnology, which consistently produces accurate results in as little as eight hours, Hogan says.

FoodChek’s MICT Assay cassettes for E. coli O157 and Listeria spp provide very fast and accurate results in hours not days; are easy, five-step processes; and offer savings of up to 50 percent on the cost of pathogen testing, he continues. Its patent-pending Actero Enrichment Media also claims to have the fastest time-to-results in the bacteria growth phase; making the timeline to results up to 30 percent faster for E. coli and Listeria, and up to 70 percent faster for Salmonella.

“Our MICT test cassettes give a quantitative result with a hard copy printout,” Hogan says.

“I see [rapid tests] as a huge marketing tool,” he adds. “If you test more than your competitors, why would a consumer or retailer not buy from you? We’re creating the FoodChek symbol/brand for food safety to be like the Nike Swoosh. Rastelli Foods intends to be the first to put the FoodChek brand on its packaging.”

“[After the enrichment growth phase], our tests take 30 minutes to set up and 48 seconds to get results. We can find the results in the same production shift; nobody else can do this,” Hogan says.

FoodChek’s E. coli O157 rapid test is AOAC-approved and USDA/FSIS comparable. A new Listeria spp rapid test is due for release in October; its Campylobacter test is expected out in January 2013; and its Salmonella spp and new STECs (shiga-toxin producing E. coli) tests are to be released in the second quarter of 2012.

More processors and testing labs want technologies with faster turnaround for pathogen screening so decisions can be made earlier on releasing inventory or in-process product, says Christine Aleski, US pathogen specialist, 3M Food Safety Department, St. Paul, Minn.

“Time is money and this axiom rules in the quality control lab as well,” she adds. “The sooner the results are available and the more accurate they are, with fewer retests required, the better financial circumstances for the company.”

Pathogen screening for Salmonella, E. coli O157(H7) and STECs are used most by 3M’s meat and poultry clients.

Rapid molecular testing offers earlier release from test-and-hold on inventories; increased specificity and sensitivity to help reduce the number of repeat tests; streamlined workflow to increase lab efficiency and technician productivity; real-time results to help make critical decisions faster; robust hardware with minimal maintenance requirements and less downtime for the lab; and powerful software that is easy to use and operate, she says.

3M’s Molecular Detection System is a simple, rapid, specific and cost-effective nucleic acid amplification and detection method, she adds.

“3M combined two unique technologies – Isothermal DNA amplification and bioluminescence detection – to offer the specificity and sensitivity required in a pathogen test solution that is also fast, simple and cost-effective,” she says. “Compared to other rapid-detection methods, the system improves efficiencies in the lab process by offering users only one preparation protocol across all assays and all matrices allowing for batch processing, easier training and less chance for human error.”

Because the DNA amplification is detected via bioluminescence, the 3M Molecular Detection System offers color-coded assay tubes for differentiate pathogen assays making it easier for technicians to work with its system, she says. Bioluminescence provides real-time detection of the DNA amplification and simultaneous amplification and detection allows for detection of positive results before the end of the run (as early as 15 minutes).

In addition, the 3M Molecular Detection System requires far less space than the market-leading rapid methods, she says.

3M’s technology instrument is portable with no need for recalibration, needs minimal maintenance and provides automatic diagnostics at start up. Isothermal DNA amplification proceeds at a constant temperature, needing no complicated instrumentation. Bioluminescence detection rids the need for high-cost excitation sources, fluorophores, fluorescent filters and detectors. Assays are available for testing Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli including O157:H7.

Meat and poultry customers of Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc., Hercules, Calif., are using the company’s real-time PCR assays, says Wendy Lauer, senior product manager, food science division. These tests typically are for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7. The company also offers an assay for STECs.

Its most popular assay is its Listeria assay for environmental samples. “That’s where they test the processing environment instead of the food to use Listeria as an indicator of hygiene,” Lauer says.

Doing the culture method could be less expensive than a rapid method, but, regarding time-to-results – cost is relative. “If your food is sitting in a warehouse waiting for test results, that’s an additional cost on top of your cost of testing,” Lauer says.

Another rapid-test benefit is the ability of high-throughput screening. If a company is processing 100, 200 or more samples at one time, it needs something that can fit into that workflow. Usually, rapid methods are designed for that, Lauer says.

Sensitivity is key. “You want the right answer to your rapid testing [and not false negatives or positives],” Lauer says. “PCR methods detect DNA of the target, they’re extremely sensitive, which yield better results.”

iQ-Check is the company’s line of real-time PCR kits. “We have a full menu of different tests,” Lauer says. “We have iQ-Check Salmonella; iQ-Check Listeria (species and monocytogenes); iQ-Check Campylobacter; iQ-Check O157; and iQ-Check-STEC. All of our tests can all be run at the same time because chances are people aren’t just running one pathogen.”

Enrichment times depend on the organism. Bio-Rad’s O157 test is validated for an eight hour enrichment; STEC is 10 hours; Salmonella is 20 hours with no regrowth step; and Listeria 24 hours. After the enrichment, the sample processing time is about 30 to 45 minutes and the run time is about an hour- and-a-half to two hours. For the Listeria test, results are available between 26 and 27 hours; for O157 complete results are within 10 to 11 hours; Salmonella is less than 24 hours. For all tests, the enrichment times are 24 hours or less.

‘Time is money’

Expect rapid testing to increase among US meat and poultry processors.

“Processors will be looking for ‘flawless information instantly,’” Hogan says. “It’s about gaining the fastesttime-to-results. You’re going to see an entire movement toward technologies being the fastest because time is money.”