Alberta researchers hot on the trail of deadly bacteria

In response to the E. coli contamination at XL Foods, scientists 
have devised a test that slashes detection time in half

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The time it takes to detect E. coli in a meat-processing plant has been cut in half, thanks to technology developed by researchers from the University of Alberta.

“We have been able to shorten the time and we can go from cold meat to detection of Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli within five to six hours,” said Lynn McMullen, a meat microbiologist, project team member and professor at the University of Alberta. The technology was created in response to the E. coli contamination that saw XL Foods in Brooks temporarily shut in 2012. That incident resulted in 18 people becoming sick — all recovered — from eating contaminated meat. The plant would end up being sold to JBS Foods, which instituted extensive new food safety protocols.

Part of the problem was testing by XL.

“If you read the report on what happened at XL, its lab actually didn’t detect when CFIA’s lab was detecting,” said McMullen. “Hopefully, our tool will give the industry a more sensitive and reliable tool for the detection of these pathogens.”

That’s been a tall order in regard to E. coli. While there are lots of kinds of this class of bacteria, only a few — 0157:H7 is the most notorious — are pathogenic. And it only takes a few bacteria to make someone ill.

“The numbers of pathogenic E. coli in beef are very, very, very low, so we are literally looking for a needle in a haystack,” said McMullen.

Nevertheless, the new DNA-based technology was developed in 18 months. It uses a polymerase chain reaction test to amplify the presence of pathogenic E. coli so they can be detected.

A faster test means a processor can make a decision about shipping meat during a shift, while decreasing the chance of E. coli-contaminated meat entering the food chain.

McMullen and several other meat microbiologists combined forces with the University of Alberta’s Linda Pilarski, who had developed a lab on a chip that could be used for medical applications. The next phase is developing new prototypes of the instrument that will be even faster and more convenient. The team is also working to find a group that can commercialize the technology, which should take several years.

Pilarski and McMullen want to grow the technology so it can be used in the detection of other foodborne pathogens, like listeria, salmonella and camphylobactor.

“We’re hoping to get the funding to expand the technology,” she said.

hamburgers on a barbeque grillThe bottom line on E. coli

Staff – While the E. coli contamination at XL Foods in Brooks captured national headlines, there are many ways people can become infected.

The Public Health Agency of Canada notes it can be contracted from raw fruits and uncooked vegetables; untreated drinking water; unpasteurized milk and apple juice; and even from animals at petting zoos or farms.

E. coli infections can also spread easily from person to person.

The main line of defence is proper hygiene combined with safe food handling and preparation practices, says the agency.

“If you think you are infected with E. coli bacteria or any other foodborne illness, do not prepare food for other people,” the agency’s website states.

“It’s also a good idea to keep pets away from food storage and preparation areas.

Symptoms of E. coli infection usually start within about three to four days after exposure, but the incubation period can be as short as one day or as long as 10 days.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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