Associate Professor of Food Science Lisa Mauer detected E. coli in ground beef in one hour using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, which is much less than the 48 hours required for many conventional plating technology that requires culturing cells in a laboratory
What’s more, the spectroscopy method also differentiates between strains of E. coli, meaning outbreaks could be tracked more effectively and quickly. Most current tests are multi-step and take almost one week to yield results.
"Even with all the other bacteria present in ground beef, we could still detect E. coli and recognize different strains," said Ms. Mauer, whose findings were reported in the August issue of the Journal of Food Science.
Two methods were demonstrated by Mauer for separating bacteria from ground beef for testing. An antibody-capture method, which binds bacteria to antibodies attached to magnetic beads, gave results in four hours. A filtration method achieved results in about an hour.
Infrared spectroscopy could detect as little as one E. coli cell if the bacteria was cultured for six hours. Conventional plating techniques used for E. coli detection require culturing cells for 48 hours.
E. coli has a specific infrared spectrum that can be read with a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer. Infrared light is passed over a sample. The spectrometer reads the spectrum created by the combination of energy that has been absorbed and energy that has been reflected back.
"Energy is only absorbed by certain components of a sample," Mauer said. "If that component or bacteria isn't there, the energy is reflected back."
Mauer's testing methods can also differentiate between living and dead E. coli cells, something current testing methods cannot accomplish.
"If the cells are dead, they're not harmful. But the presence of that dead population could tell you something about the quality of the product," Ms. Mauer said.
The ground beef tests show promise for using the technology to find other pathogens in additional types of foods, she said. She has already shown that spectroscopy can detect melamine – which sickened about 300,000 infants in China and killed at least six in 2008 – down to one part per million in powdered baby formula.
Mauer now plans to assess spectroscopy for detection of more pathogens in different food products.