Rapid testing technology is available for both large and small processing companies.
Picking up the pace
Interest in rapid-testing technology has been around for quite some time, but now seems to be growing at an ever-quickening pace. “There’s been research and development in faster testing technology and methods for a long time,” says Mike Clark, international group product manager for the food science division of Bio-Rad Laboratories in Hercules, California. The company supplies media, kits and instrumentation for many applications, including the poultry and meat processing industries. “Fresh meat, for example, has a pretty short shelf life. The sooner you get the results from testing, the sooner the company’s product can be released. It’s kind of a balance between speed, accuracy and the quality of the test results,” he says.
“Culture methods can take anywhere from three to 10 days to get results,” Clark says, “where rapid-testing answers can be same day or two-day.” Tests quicker than culture methods include ELISA, based on antibodies and molecular techniques like PCR, where you’re focusing on DNA.”
But recently, even faster molecular method tests have been developed, that target RNA, rather than DNA, like “real-time” PCR, for example, or nucleic acid-based tests.
Clark says for diagnostic companies like Bio-Rad, there are really two customers to be satisfied, not just one. “The first is the food, meat or poultry processor, the food manufacturer. The second is the consumer of the product, indirectly our customer, who’s the primary customer of the processor,” he points out.
Essentially, testing provides verification of established food safety practices.
“For meat processors, the product you’ve made is being held, before you can ship it to its destination, until you get the results of the testing back. It’s what’s called in the industry ‘test-and-hold.’ The product must be held back at the plant, because if the testing finds a pathogen or other problem in the sample out for testing, and the product has already been shipped from the plant, then you have a huge problem. If you would need to do a recall, that would be an economic disaster for the company – from a public relations standpoint, for the future of the company’s brand, and for the health and safety of consumers who may have bought the product. And today the repercussions from a product recall are even worse, because we live in the age of instant media. With social media, 24-hour cable news channels, if you have to do a recall, the word about that is everywhere instantly – not in days or weeks, but in minutes,” Zerr says.
“So, the results from the testing must get back from the company as quickly as possible, so it can ship its product. And in addition to speed, the test results must be as accurate and reliable as possible.”
Rapid-testing technology is not just something for big meat and poultry processing companies to use. There are testing kits and media that can be used by small processors, as well.
And lest processors think final product testing is the answer to all their fears about pathogens and recalls…well, it’s not. There’s a saying in the food industry, “You can’t test your way to food safety.” “That’s certainly true,” Bio-Rad’s Clark says. “You need to sanitize, follow your regulations, carry out best practices. Testing can also be a verification of what you’re doing.”