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Western University Scientists Develop New Test to Detect E. Coli in Contaminated Food

Scientists at Western University have developed new technology that they believe has the potential to drastically improve food safety.

The new rapid-test system, developed by Dr. Michael Rieder, would allow manufacturers to more quickly identify food contaminated with a strain of E. coli before it leaves the processing plant, and enters the grocery store.

“The current method for developing bacteria like E. coli relies on culture and takes about 3 or 4 days to get a result, so we thought we could do better than that,” said Dr. Rieder.

“By the time the bacteria are identified, the food has been shipped to grocery stores and may have already caused illness. With this current system, two weeks of food may need to be recalled to ensure against cross-contamination.”

Dr. Rieder’s rapid-test system would allow food to be sampled at the end of one day, and the results would be available before the food is shipped the next morning.

“This means that one day’s production is lost, not five days production,” he said. “This has the potential to save companies considerable money, and more importantly could save a lot of people from being exposed to food-borne disease.”

The system was developed over the past five years as a result of collaborations between Dr. Rieder, scientist at Robarts Research Institute at Western University, and London entrepreneurs, Michael Brock and Craig Coombe.

The rapid-test relies on targeting proteins identified by Dr. Rieder’s lab that are only present in the organisms that cause people to become ill. By collaborating with Toronto-based company, International Point of Care, the team was able to use flow-through technology to mark the protein with colloidal gold so that it is visible to the naked eye. The process is similar to that used in pregnancy tests – one line for negative, two lines for positive.

“I’d like to think that at Robarts we deliver, so now we’ve got this product that’s out there and let’s see where it goes,” he said. “Our next target, by the way, is going to look at Listeria, so now that we’ve got E. coli solved, we’re going to start looking at other bacteria.”

The rapid-test system has completed testing at Robarts and the Health Canada-certified Agriculture and Food Laboratory at the University of Guelph. The final application has been submitted to Health Canada for approval.

On average, 440 cases of E. coli 0157 infection in humans are reported annually to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

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