Public attention to food safety has only increased in the past year. Recalls have been hitting the news almost every other week. The vast majority of these recalls are for undeclared allergens, not pathogen contamination. However, even those types of recalls affect the bottom line of any processor.

Testing of product before it goes out the door can help. And thanks to new technologies, many companies can establish in-house laboratories for some of the tests important to the meat industry.

Dr. Daniel Y.C. Fung, a professor of food science at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., says the difficulty of doing rapid testing in-house depends on the actual test being done.

“There are some very simple ones like lateral flow ELISA test (10 minutes) and there are some more complicated ones,” he says. “So it all depends on the type of microbiological tests involved. As a rule if you plan to do pathogen tests it will be much more difficult because you will need secured facilities.”

Fung goes on to explain that there are actually four levels of laboratory capability, ranging from BL1 to BL4. A BL1 lab has the biosecurity and equipment of a high school laboratory. Good only for the most basic of work, such as testing for E. coli O:157.

A BL2, at the university research level and the type of in-house lab a meat processor should have, has a higher standard. Fung says that labs at this level would have a bacteriological hood to contain pathogens and would be suitable for most work necessary for the meat industry.

The two upper levels have increasing biosecurity and restrictions up to BL4. A BL4 lab is the type used by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for its research in to pathogens such as Ebola.

“Companies developing products have worked to make it easier for the testing to be done in a rapid and consistent manner,” says Purnendu Vasavada, a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “It’s not that difficult at all depending on what kind of testing your doing.”

Speeding up

Both Fung and Vasavada say that having technicians conducting the testing on campus can help speed up the process more than simply sending them out for completion.

“Nowadays, because the speed of getting result has been increasing greatly, it is more efficient to do in-house testing to minimize mailing samples to outside laboratories and waiting for the result to come back a couple of days later,” says Fung. “Again, it depends on how skillful are your technicians in microbiological manipulations.” Fung explains that testing for all pathogens has increased so much that part of the benefit of having an in-house lab is simply saving time on transit of samples and results.

”A decade ago, most consultants recommended sending out samples out of safety.,” he says. “ Companies have been sending out the samples ever since. Now advances have made it possible to have a lab with the same capabilities for a more affordable price.”

Vasavada adds that having a lab in the building, depending on the number of technicians on staff, can help with the throughput of the tests themselves.

“The word ‘rapid’ can have a different connotation. Doesn’t always mean less time, can also mean avoiding bottlenecks,” he says.

The professors differ a bit on the level of training needed to effectively staff a lab. Fung believes that a lab technician should have a minimum of Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology to be effective.

Vasavada has a slightly different opinion. “I used to think that too, but what if you don’t find that?” he says. “What if someone who’s worked for 15 years has a good understanding of compliance? They would be very valuable in the lab function and can be cross trained.” But even then, the technician would need some experience before working in a lab and some education beyond a high school diploma. Backgrounds in biology and microbiology would also be needed.

Paying for it

There are costs both with the establishment and maintenance of a laboratory. “The cost involved in having a functional laboratory and on-going up keep of supply, disposables and personnel is quite substantial,” Fung says. “But then one unfortunate recall of food products can run into the millions of dollars loss and bad image from the public for a company.” The lab could then help save money in the long run.

Fung goes on to say that an office with basic equipment could be used as a lab. But even that small investment will run into a couple hundred thousand dollars for equipment such as microscopes, hoods, incubators, storage and more.

But even after the lab is set up, there are also supplies needed to keep it working. “If you’re going to do conventional testing, you’re going to need Petri dishes, water baths and slides,” says Vasavada. “Those things are given. Then what you need are supplies, like refrigerators, incubators and sampling bags. If you are a small or medium sized, it’s easier to have some those things made and delivered just in time then deal with storage.”

As with other part of the meat industry, there is near constant development of new advances in equipment.

Vasavada says that one item that has recently come to the market is the electric pipettor, which makes it convenient and easier to deliver sample aliquots to Petri dishes or Petri film. Then there is some development in automated colony counters that allows colony counting, reading zone assays and other activities. Also, several software applications allowing automated or semi-automated recording and analyzing of results and electronic record keeping are becoming available.

“For the past 28 years we have organized the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Food Microbiology Symposium and Rapid Methods workshops where commercial vendors display and discuss various methods, equipments and systems for rapid Microbiological testing,” Vasavada says. “The miniaturization and microprocessors developed over the last ten years are making a difference in testing.”

Making the right choice

Vasavada and Fung agree that processors should be careful and consider their needs when selecting the equipment for an in-house lab.

Fung says the most important consideration is to properly enumerate, identify and classify the target microbes or chemicals in the food and the right personnel to operate the test, obtain result and interpret the data for the supervisor to be able to make a decision to release the products or to hold the products for more testing. An effective lab would need to be able to do viable cell counts of both mold and bacteria and pathogen detection.

“The thing to keep in mind is the equipment consistent to what the client or regulator wants,” Vasavada says, adding that processors need to pay attention to how reliable, user friendly and rugged the equipment is. How widely the equipment is used in the industry is also a factor.

“What kind of supplies and reagents are required and what is the shelf life of those supplies, says Vasavada. “Finally, you should consider how well the test works with your other testing activities.” All of these are considerations to be taken into account.

The limits

Of course, there is a limit to what a lab in the facility can realistically do.

“I would think you can’t do a lot of the toxin testing, with botulism, you can’t really do that easily,” says Vasavada. “Testing for food borne viruses may also pose a challenge.”

However, beyond those restrictions, what the lab could do is limited only by the budget.

Fung says it depends on the needs of the company. “I know a company uses several ribotyping instruments all the time, each costing about $150,000 and each sample costs $45,” he says. “That company performs millions of tests a year worldwide.” Fung continues by saying that the company does that to identify pathogens accurately to the species and subspecies level to protect their products in case a law suit is involved. Their lab has machines and instruments for PCR, gene sequencing, ribotyping, gel electropheresis, sophisticated nanotechnology system GC, HPLC, focal plane array, Fourier transform infrared spectroscope and more.

But a reasonably supplied company lab can do the basics and doesn’t necessarily need that level of sophistication for general monitoring. They do need the best technology for that general monitoring in the case of a recall. And even with just using the basics, a company using in-house would need to have multimillion dollar sales to justify it.

There is new technology coming down the line that will prove use useful for companies.

Fung says that one new product coming down the pipeline is one-shift tests, allowing for plant managers to make adjustments as needed.

Other suppliers are working on making DNA testing more user-friendly, Vasavada says. There’s also a new generation of immunology-based tests that will be available.

Keeping current

Even with the best training for technicians, they need to keep current to stay up on the latest developments in a fast-changing sector of the industry.

“I think they should take part in a lot of the training going on in university extension workshops,” says Vasavada. “Make some way to do the in-house training and work it into the compensation package. They have incentive to show what they’re learning and help the bottom line of the company.”

Fung suggests going to national and international scientific meetings regularly. Those attending can experience short courses, seminars, workshops and other resources. A good example is Fung’s International Workshop on Rapid Methods and Automation in Microbiology held annually since 1981 at Kansas State University. That event will be held June 13-20 this year.

Another opportunity for education is at Vasavada’s Food Microbiology Symposium held at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls on October 19-22, 2008.

Where to go for equipment and supplies.

There are many companies working both internationally and domestically in supplying materials and equipment for testing. The following is a partial list of the many companies working on developments in rapid testing.

Advanced AnalyticalTechnologies Inc.
2901 S. Loop Drive
        Suite 3300
        Ames, Iowa 50010
        Phone: (515) 296-6600
        Fax: (515) 296-6789
        AES Laboratoire/Chemunex
        301 N.Harrison Street
        Suite 109
        Princeton, N.J. 08540
        Phone: (609) 497-0166
        Fax: (609) 497-7307
        Applied Biosystems
        850 Lincoln Centre Drive
        Foster City, Calif. 94404
        Phone: (800) 327-3002
        Fax: (650) 638-5884
        Becton, Dickinson and Co.
        1 Becton Drive
        Franklin Lakes, N.J. 07417
        Phone: (201) 847-6800
        BioControl Systems Inc.
        12822 S.E. 32nd St.
        Bellevue, Wash. 98005
        Phone: (800) 245-0113
        Fax: (425) 603-0080
        Biolog Inc.
        21124 Cabot Blvd.
        Hayward, Calif. 94545
        Phone: (800) 284-4949
        Fax: (510) 782-4639
        bioMerieux sa
        100 Rodolphe Street
        Durham, N.C. 27712
        Phone : (919) 620-2000
        Fax : (919) 620-2211
        Bio-Rad Inc.
        1000 Alfred Nobel Drive
        Hercules, Calif. 94547
        Phone: (510) 724-7000
        Fax: (510) 741-5815
        Bioscience International
        11607 Magruder Lane
        Rockville, Md. 20852-4365
        Phone: (301) 230-0072
        FAX: (301) 230-1418
        904 Caribbean Drive
        Sunnyvale, Calif. 94089
        Phone: (408) 541-4191
        Fax: (408) 541-4192
        Celsis International PLC
        600 W. Chicago Ave
        Suite 625
        Chicago, Ill. 60610-2422
        Tel: (312) 476 1200
        Fax: (312) 476 1201
        Charm Sciences Inc.
        659 Andover St.
        Lawrence, Mass. 01843-1032
        Phone: (978) 687-9200
        Fax: (978) 687-9216
        DuPont Qualicon
        ESL Building 400
        Box 80400
        Route 141 and Henry Clay Road
        Wilmington, Del. 19880-0400
        Phone: (800) 863-6842
        Fax: (302) 695-5301
        Dynal Biotech
        Invitrogen Corp. (US Division of Dynal)
        1600 Faraday Avenue
        P.O. Box 6482
        Carlsbad, Calif. 92008
        Phone: (760) 603-7200
        Fax: (760) 602-6500
        Fisher Scientific
        2000 Park Lane
        Pittsburgh, Penn. 15275
        Phone: (800) 766-7000
        Food Safety Net Services
        199 W. Rhapsody
        San Antonio, Texas 78216
        Phone: (210) 384-3424
        Fax: (210) 308-8730
        Hardy Diagnostics Inc.
        1430 W. McCoy Lane
        Santa Maria, Calif. 93455
        Phone: (800) 266-2222
        Fax: (805) 614-9274
HiMedia Labs Pvt Limited
        A-406, Bhaveshwar Plaza
        LBS Marg, Mumbai 400 086
        Idaho Technology Inc.
        390 Wakara Way
        Salt Lake City, Utah 84108
        Phone: (801) 736-6354
        Fax: (801) 588-0507
        IDEXX Laboratories Inc.
        One IDEXX Drive
        Westbrook, Maine 04092
        Phone: (800) 321-0207
        Fax: (207) 556-4630
        IUL S. A.
        Torrent de l’Estadella, 22
        08030 Barcelona, Spain
        Phone: +34 93 274 0232
        Fax: +34 93 274 0144
        MATRIX MicroScience Ltd
        400 Corporate Circle,
        Suite D,
        Golden, Colo. 80401
        Phone: (303) 277-9613
        Fax: (303) 277-9643
        Merck KgaA
        Frankfurter Str. 250
        64293 Darmstadt
        Phone: +49 6151 72-0
        Fax: +49 6151 72-2000
        MicroBioLogics Inc.
        217 Osseo Avenue North
        Saint Cloud, Minn. 56303
        Phone: (320) 253-1640
        Fax: (320) 253-6250
        Microbiology International
        5108 Pegasus Court
        Suite A
        Frederick, Md. 21704
        Phone: (800) 396-4276
        Fax: (301) 662-8096
        Micrology Laboratories LLC
        1303 Eisenhower Dr. S.
        Goshen, Ind. 46526-5360
        Phone: (574) 533-3351
        Fax: (574) 533-3370
        3M Microbiology
        3M Corporate Headquarters
        3M Center
        St. Paul, Minn. 55144-1000
        Neogen Corp.
        620 Lesher Place
        Lansing, Mich.
        Phone: (800) 234-5333
        Fax: (517) 372-0108
        New Horizons Diagnostics Corp.
        9110 Red Branch Road
        Columbia, Md. 21045
        Phone: (410) 992-9357 Ext. 235 or 232
        Fax: (410) 992-0328
        Oxoid Inc.
        1926 Merivale Road, Suite 100
        Nepean, Ontario K2G 1E8
        Phone: (613) 226-1318
        Fax: 613 226 3728
        Remel Products
        12076 Santa Fe Drive
        P.O. Box 14428
        Lenexa, Kan. 66215
        Phone: (800) 255-6730
        Fax: (800) 621-8251
        Strategic Diagnostics Inc.

        111 Pencader Drive
        Newark, Del. 19702
        Phone: (800) 544-8881
        Fax: (302) 456-6782
        Warnex Diagnostics Inc.
        3885 Industriel Blvd.
        Laval, Quebec H7L 4S3
        Phone: (888) 988-1888
        Fax: (450) 663-2784

This is a partial list. Many other companies may work on Rapid Methods. Any exclusion of companies is not intentional.