Scientists are developing a hand-held sensor they say will help save lives by quickly pinpointing the presence of a deadly E. coli strain and other harmful germs in food and drinks, in some cases within minutes.
The device has been in development for the past decade, during which time fatal E. coli outbreaks have continued to be a big problem for food manufacturers.
"This device may help prevent people from getting sick and save money as far as medical treatment goes but the ultimate concern is consumer safety," said Cornell University chemist Richard Durst, who helped developed the test.
Field testing of the new device, which takes eight minutes to detect the lethal E. coli 0157:H7, is scheduled to begin in July.
Most often, E. coli is the culprit of many lethal forms of food poisoning. Harmless forms of the bacterium live in the digestive tracts of humans and animals, but what public health officials worry about is the E. coli 0157, a deadly strain that causes severe bloody diarrhoea and abdominal cramps and can lead to kidney failure or death.
It can contaminate beef during slaughter and packaging, usually from contamination with cattle faeces. People who consume unpasteurised milk and juice or inadequately chlorinated water also are at risk of infection.
Current tests for E. coli use a dipstick method, similar to a home pregnancy test in which presence of the bacteria changes the colour of the monitor. A negative sample will display a different colour to ensure the test worked properly. Results can take up to a workday to complete, which can be too late.
The device, the size of a micro-cassette recorder, then reads the strip and measures the amount of germ present. The device could be used by inspectors at beef plants or by investigators at restaurants, food services and public events.
Currently, the device can detect very high levels of contamination in less than 10 minutes. To detect smaller levels would take four hours because a larger sample would need to incubate.
Cornell has licensed the device to Grand Island, New York-based Innovative Biotechnologies International, which is working with a public health laboratory in upstate New York to test the technology.