“It’s much better if you test the process as it is working.”
On a hot summer day, nothing spells refreshment quite like a slice of juicy, orange cantaloupe. But in summer 2011, cantaloupes reached plates with an unwanted addition: listeria. In the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak since 1925, cantaloupes contaminated with this bacterium killed 33 people.
Unfortunately, cantaloupes weren’t the end of the story. A year later, listeria tainted another well-loved American staple: cheese. This time the bacteria killed four people. If the contamination had been detected before the food arrived on plates, these deaths could have been prevented.
A few months from now, a Boston-based start-up company will market a test kit that will do just that: detect this deadly bacterium in the processing plant, before it reaches the grocery store. They’ve used the tools of synthetic biology to create this novel, rapid test for Listeria contamination.
Scheduled for launch in July, the test developed by Sample6 Technologies provides results in three to four hours, compared to 16 and 48 hours for current assays for bacterial contamination.
The lag time built into existing tests forces companies that deal in perishable foods to make a tough choice between waiting for results or shipping potentially unsafe food.
“The faster you can get results, the closer to real time, the better off you are,” said Will Daniels, senior vice president of Earthbound Farms. His company grows and packages organic salads and other produce. Daniels said Earthbound Farms is currently working with Sample6 to employ the more rapid test.
“It means that you could actually be testing while you’re producing products and have the results before you ship it out. That’s huge.”
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