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Canadian team develops new E. coli test

Researchers in Alberta teamed up to develop an E. coli test for food processing facilities that is “better, faster and cheaper than other tests” on the market


Edmonton, Alta. – A new test has been developed to help food processors detect E. coli.

Medical, agricultural and computer science researchers from the University of Alberta teamed up to develop the test, which is the size of a large shoebox.

The testing device can detect pathogenic E. coli while meat is still at food processing facilities.

The researchers say the test is more sensitive at picking up E. coli strains, faster at pinpointing results and less expensive than other tests that are currently used.

Linda Pilarski from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and Lynn McMullen from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences (ALES) lead the team fine-tuning this E. coli test, which received $500,000 in funding from Genome Alberta and its partners this week.

Their colleagues include Michael Gänzle from ALES and Faculty of Science researcher Patrick Pilarski from the Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning. Xianqin Yang will collaborate from the Lacombe Research Centre operated by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in central Alberta.

Exciting application

The test, say the researchers, is easy to use. Pilarski explains that the device works much like a Xerox machine.

Users place a sample of meat in a machine and push a button. Results will be available in less than an hour. The device makes millions of copies of the genes in the meat sample to determine whether E. coli is present.

“It’s an exciting application that allows us to test for E. coli toxins and genes that allow bacteria to stick to meat,” says Pilarski. “The current tests used in the food processing industry have issues and sometimes don’t detect contaminants as effectively as they should, due to a variety of complicating factors. This relatively new molecular technology will be much more efficient and much less subject to complications.”

The researchers say this new device came about from previous research, which led the team to develop the device’s inner workings and instrumentation.

The previously developed technology was designed to detect pathogens of various diseases.

What also makes this new device unique is that a quick test can be done without highly trained microbiology technical expertise. And for now, testing for E. coli is just a start. The research team says the technology has the potential to expand to test for other food-borne pathogens.