By Eric Schmid
A research team from multiple universities is developing technology that can detect salmonella contamination in a matter of minutes. They aim to take the results from sensors and pair them with other data to strengthen the safety and resilience of the supply of chicken.
Visit any grocery store and you can expect that the produce, meat and other products that line the shelves are not contaminated.
But sometimes that’s not the case.
Each year the federal government launches dozens of investigations into foodborne disease outbreaks traced to germs like salmonella, listeria, E. coli and others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 48 million people fall ill annually as a result.
And of those who get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
Salmonella is one of the top germs that causes these ailments, and it’s a pathogen often associated with chicken and eggs. A research team led by the University of Missouri is responding by developing ways to more quickly detect the pathogen in the entire chicken supply chain. (The University of Missouri-St. Louis, Lincoln University, Auburn University and the University of Notre Dame also are involved in the research.)
“We just want to make a safe food supply for everyone,” said Kate Trout, one of the project’s principal investigators at the University of Missouri. “(Including) rural communities, low income communities, which we now have higher rates of salmonella infections.”
Trout explained the research aims to take the results from sensors that rapidly detect small amounts of salmonella and pair them with data on food production, animal health, population health and other geospatial data.
That lines up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's goals for mitigating salmonella in the food supply, she added.
Saving resources and time
While the chicken supply chain is relatively safe with few notices of contamination, experts say the current testing process often takes several days.
“People are constantly looking for better ways to sample, better ways to test and get faster results,” said Jim Dickson, a professor in Iowa State University’s animal science department. “The quicker a processor gets results, the quicker they can react to them.”
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service tests for the bacteria, and major poultry processors also typically test their chicken every day too, he said. But testing laboratories are often off-site, and preparing a sample before it can be tested can take a day or two.
“Realistically, in most cases we’re talking about three days from the time of the sample to the time of the result,”Dickson said. “By the time they get results back that product is gone. It’s already been shipped.”
The team’s research, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator, addresses the issue of timing by developing new portable and easy-to-use sensors that can quickly detect small amounts of contamination.
“One that allows us to do testing basically within one hour,” said Lead Principal Investigator Mahmoud Almarsi. “The second one, the optical one, we are testing within 10 minutes and probably even lower than 10 minutes.”
Almarsi, a professor in Mizzou’s electrical engineering and computer science department, added they’re also creating a third sensor that will be able to detect the specific kind of salmonella present in a sample.
“There are maybe 2,500 different types of salmonella,” Almarsi said. “But not all of them are in poultry.”
This level of granularity would go further than the current industry standard, which only detects salmonella in general, said Kantha Channaiah, an assistant professor of food science at Mizzou.
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