Rapid E. coli test ready for commercial use

The goal is to identify E. coli in your food before it ever leaves the processing plant, ensuring that it never makes it to the shelves of your neighbourhood grocery store.

A new rapid testing kit developed by researchers at Robarts Research Institute is revolutionizing food safety testing. The kit, which detects E. coli 0157, a food-borne bacteria most commonly found in ground meat, has been translated for commercial use and is now making its way to food processing plants in North America.

“Our goal is to get the testing to occur as close as possible to the source,” said Dr. Michael Rieder, professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and scientist at Robarts Research Institute. “This technology is not only faster, but it’s less expensive, it’s easy to use, and it can occur right in the processing plant.”

Current food testing methods rely on culture, which requires samples to be sent away for testing, with results taking up to two weeks to come back. By that time, the food has often been shipped to market and large recalls have to occur.

The Western-developed kit detects a protein unique to the pathogenic E. coli bacteria, and using flow through technology is able show results in hours rather than days. The process works in much the same way as a pregnancy test - showing one line for negative and two lines for positive.

“We are looking at this specific biomarker because it is unique to this pathogenic bacteria. The presence of bacteria itself isn’t bad, but we want to be able to identify specific bacteria that will cause people to get sick,” Rieder said. “The goal is a wafer food chain for everyone so that public safety can be assured.”

The system was developed as a result of collaborations between Dr. Rieder, a team at International Point of Care (IPOC), and London entrepreneurs, Craig Combe and the late Michael Brock. Much of the work was funded through grant from Mitacs, a federal non-profit that encourages academic and industrial collaboration.

“This commercialization happened at Robarts Research Institute because of the environment and the philosophy of collaboration here,” said Dr. Rieder. “Robarts is a technology incubator and promotes industrial-academic collaboration as a way to find new discoveries and get those discoveries to market.”