A test for E. coli that cuts the time to result from days to mere hours could have serious positive economic and public health implications, say researchers.
The new rapid-test system to detect E. coli 0157, developed by scientists at Ontario’s Western University, cuts the amount of time is takes to get results from as many as 21 days to just eight hours. The difference in time could be a big money saver for distributors of meat, where most E. coli is found.
The trouble with conventional tests is that they rely on bacterial culture. But that’s a slow process and often by the time bacteria are identified contaminated food has already been shipped to grocery stores.
“We’re hoping this will be able to cut the time in which we can identify pathogens in food so that we can go from having to recall 20-million-dollars worth of ground beef to having to recall maybe one day’s production,” says Dr. Michael Rieder, a professor at Western University and researcher at the Robarts Research Institute in London, Ontario.
E. coli, sometimes referred to as the “Hamburger Disease” became part of the public lexicon in the early 1990’s, when an outbreak linked to the Jack in the Box Restaurant chain in the Western United States produced a whopping 602 cases that resulted in hundreds of hospitalizations and several deaths. The source of the contaminated beef was never identified.
In 2011, an outbreak at a farm in Germany was even more devastating, killing at least 50 people who ate fenugreek sprouts produced there.
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More recently, an outbreak of E. coli hit at least 42 people in Washington and Oregon, most of whom reported eating at Chipotle restaurants. The company voluntarily closed restaurants across the two states, sanitized them, and brought in new food. In the time since, Chipotle said it had received more than 900 test results, all of which have come back negative. Like the Jack in the Box incident, the source of the contamination has not been identified.
“The safety of our customers and integrity of our food supply has always been our highest priority,” said Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells. “If there are any opportunities for us to do better in any facet of our sourcing or food handling — from the farms to our restaurants — we will find them. We are sorry to those affected by this situation, and it is our greatest priority to ensure that we go above and beyond to make certain that we find any opportunity to do better in any area of food safety.”
Canada’s worst outbreak of E.coli happened in 2000 in Walkerton, Ontario when 2300 people became sick and seven died after bacteria from manure spread on a field entered the town’s water supply.
Rieder suggests the new test could at least put a serious dent in the era of widespread E. Coli outbreaks at fast food restaurants and grocery stores.
“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 researchers have submitted a final application to Health Canada for approval.