It’s true: Fast and accurate testing and analyzing of products take some of the guesswork out of meat and poultry processing. That said, among the most sought-after, testing-system attributes in the industry today are simplicity, accuracy, speed, cost efficiency and multiple formats.

Many detection systems are fast and accurate, screening food and environmental samples for pathogens or other organisms by breaking down samples at the genetic level, using the power of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect bacteria. Assays are available for detecting E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, or L. monocytogenes in raw and processed meat and poultry.

Other technologies detect and identify microorganisms rapidly and specifically by taking advantage of their unique DNA signature through the use of proprietary DNA markers. The detection process can be applied to a wide array of products ranging from the environment (air and water) to agri-foods and pharmaceutical.

Even more unique are tests to detect ruminant byproducts in meat and bone meal and finished animal feed to stem the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Users of this system can screen samples for the pathogen in as little as eight hours.

Rapid methods and automation in microbiology is a dynamic area in applied microbiology dealing with the study of improved methods in the isolation, earlydetection, characterization and enumeration of microorganisms and their products in clinical, pharmaceutical, food, industrial and environmental samples.

In the past 25 years, says Dr. Daniel Y. C. Fung, Ph.D., professor of food science, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., this field has emerged into an important subdivision of the general field of applied microbiology and is gaining momentum nationally and internationally as an area of research and application to monitor the numbers, kinds and metabolites of microorganisms related to food spoilage, preservation and fermentation, food safety, and foodborne pathogens.

Testing trends and predictions

There is no question that many microbiological tests are being conducted globally in pharmaceutical and food products, environmental samples, medical specimens and water samples.

The most popular tests are total viable cell count, coliform/E. coli count and yeast and mold counts. A large number of tests are also performed on pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria and L. monocytogenes, E. coli O157:H7, Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter and other organisms.

In 1998, Fung says microbiological tests worldwide were estimated to be at 755 million with a market value of $1 billion. In 2007, about one third of the tests were being performed in North America (United States and Canada), another third in Europe, and the last third within the rest of the world. The projection for 2008 was about 1.5 billion tests with a market value of $5 billion.

Dr. Fung predicts in 20 years the rest of the world will perform 50 percent of the tests with North America and Europe performing 25 percent each. This is due to rapid economic developments and food- and health-safety concerns worldwide in the years ahead.

Fung has made the following 10 predictions over the years; some have been right on the money:

Note: (+) is a good prediction by Fung. (?) is an uncertain prediction.

• Viable cell counts will still be used in the next 25 years. (+)

• Real-time monitoring of hygiene will be in place. (+)

• PCR, ribotyping and genetic tests will become reality in food laboratories. (+)

• ELISA and immunological tests will be completely automated and widely used. (+)

• Dipstick technology will provide rapid answers. (+)

• Biosensors will be in place for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs. (?)

• Biochips, microchips, microarrays will greatly advance in the field. (+)

• Effective separation, concentration of target cells will assist rapid identification. (+)

• A microbiological alert system will be in food and pharmaceutical packages. (?)

• Consumers will have rapid alert kits for pathogens at home. (?)

In conclusion, Fung says it is safe to say that the field of rapid method and automation in microbiology will continue to grow in numbers and kinds of tests done in the future due to issues concerning food safety and public health.

“The future looks very bright for the field of rapid methods and automation in microbiology,” he says. “The potential is great, and many exciting developments will certainly unfold in the near and far future.”

A discussion in microbiology

The National Provisioner queries Tom Weschler, president of Woodstock, Vt.-based Strategic Consulting Inc., about the objectives of, and advancements in, microbiology testing.

The National Provisioner (NP): What is the main objective of microbiology testing?

Tom Weschler: There were 740 million microbiology tests performed by the food industry in 2008 to help processors achieve their objective — to produce safe and wholesome foods that meet label claims.

These food processors spend billions of dollars trying to achieve that. Things are improving dramatically, and generally, food processors are doing an excellent job. They have made huge advances since early food issues came about in the 1990s — investments in process changes, employee education, HACCP philosophy, and plant redesign. Having said that, our current microbiology tests need to be improved to offer the food processors the tools they need to continue to make strides in food safety.

NP: Describe the phases in microbiological testing. Is it working? How does microbiology relate to true HACCP programs?

Weschler: In a microbiology test, there are three basic phases: The sample-prep phase, detection phase, and the information-gathering/processing phase. Over the past 20 years, there have been a lot of advances in new technologies in the detection phase. But we are not going to get to the desired true HACCP microbiology (actionable results within three to four hours), until we improve limits of detection that also includes significant advances in the sample prep phase.

Fundamental HACCP is proactive and built on the concept that if you control your raw materials and can control your factory, then the end product will be under control. The problem with current microbiology tests is the length of time required to get the results. It is hard to apply true microbiology HACCP with the time limits stipulated by current microbial tests.

Given these current limitations in time to results, from a microbiology point of view, food processors have to be more reactive and relying heavily on end-product testing. In a progressive way, what leading companies want is to conduct true HACCP by taking microbial samples as required on a real-time basis.
NP: What do you see happening in the future? What do processors really want?

Weschler: One of the things food processors would like to see happen is getting microbiology test results back quicker. When I prepare my market reports, I ask companies their biggest wish as it relates to improvements in micro testing. Over 80 percent say they desire faster results. And although there are continued advances in this area — down to 24 hours in many cases — food processors want to get the information in a three- to four-hour window due to the fact that a lot of these food plants [the lab specifically], might be running on a single- or half-shift basis. So timing is critical.

To date, or in the near future, I am not aware of anything that will be coming out that will radically reduce information to this three- to four-hour timeframe. I am aware of some in development, but I’m not sure they’ll be available in the next 12 months.

Rapid-testing methods at work

The 29th Annual International Workshop on Rapid Methods and Automation in Microbiology will be held June 19 to 26 at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan. Rapid methods and automation is a dynamic area in applied microbiology dealing with the study of improved methods in the isolation, early detection, characterization, and enumeration of microorganisms and their products in clinical, food, industrial and environmental samples. This workshop will focus on the practical application of conventional and new commercial systems of rapid identification of microorganisms from medical specimens, foods, water, and the environment. Workshop participants will receive eight days of intensive theoretical and hands-on training in microbiological automation under the direction of Dr. Daniel Y. C. Fung.

Two mini-symposia are included as an integral part of the workshop. The Rapid Methods mini-symposium is conducted during the first two days of the workshop and features lectures, industry exhibits, and a scientific poster competition. The National Alliance for Food Safety and Security (NAFSS) mini-symposium held later in the week highlights original research work as well as summaries of key developments in nanotechnology, biosensors, infrared sensors, bioluminescence, immunomagnetic capture, immuno- chemical methods, phage displacement, protein-based microarray.

Please contact Debbie Hagenmaier for registration and programming details at debbie@ksu.edu or (785) 532-3560, and Dr. Daniel Y. C. Fung for scientific and speaker details at dfung@ksu.edu or (785) 532-1208. About 4,000 microbiology and food science professionals from 60 countries have attended this workshop series since 1981.

Publishing microbiology

Simply put, says Tom Weschler, president of Strategic Consulting Inc. (SCI), Food Micro — 2008 to 2013 is the best market-research report yet published by the Woodstock, Vt.-based company. The report provides a global perspective of the microbiology-testing market in the food-processing sector.

“Given many factors in today’s market, it is important to point out what is and what is not included in Food Micro — 2008 to 2013,” says Weschler. “The report reviews the microbiology testing done in the food-processing sector by processors/manufacturers of commodities/products with the purpose of ensuring ‘quality product.’ These microbiology tests are incorporated into the daily routine at these food-processing plants as these companies make sure their products meet label claims, protect their brand name, and comply with government regulations.”

The food-microbiology market in 2008 amounted to 738.3 million tests, with a market value of more than $2.05 billion, says Weschler.

“This market is growing quite quickly, stimulated, to a certain extent, by the frequent headlines garnered by some of the companies/segments in this market,” he says.

For more information on how to subscribe to Food Micro — 2008 to 2013, contact Tom Weschler at weschler@strategic-consult.com.