Innovations in food safety
Dr. Michael Rieder and his team at Robarts Research Institute are working on a project that has the potential to drastically improve food safety.
In collaboration with two Ontario companies, they are developing a new rapid-test for foodborne bacterias such as Listeria and E-coli that would mean contaminated food can be identified before it even leaves the processing plant.
“This has the potential to save companies considerable money, and more importantly, could save a lot of people from being exposed to foodborne disease,” Dr. Rieder said.
Current conventional testing relies on culture, which for definitive results can take anywhere from 18 to 20 days. This often means that by the time the bacteria are identified, the food is already on the shelves of grocery stores, potentially making people sick. It also means that often more than two weeks of food has to be recalled to ensure against cross-contamination.
With Dr. Rieder's rapid-test, the food could be tested at the end of one day, and the results could be in hand before the food is shipped the next morning. “So that means that one day’s production is lost, not 20 days production,” he said.
The rapid test relies on targeting proteins identified by Dr. Rieder’s lab that are only present in the organisms that cause people to become ill. By collaborating with a Mississauga-based company called International Point of Care (IPOC) they were able to use flow-through technology to mark the protein with colloidal gold so that it is visible to the naked eye. The process is similar to that used in pregnancy tests; one line for negative, two lines for positive.
Much of the work to-date has been funded through a grant from Mitacs, a provincial program that encourages academic and industrial collaboration. Dr. Rieder said much of their success has been because of these collaborations, not just with industry, but with colleagues at Robarts and Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.
“The days of the little old guy in his lab working on one protein with one technician and one post-doc are probably over,” Dr. Rieder said. “Being at Robarts and having access to the collaborations that we have here has been immensely helpful.”
Dr. Rieder has high hopes that this test will be available for use as early as this time next year.
“I’m someone whose discoveries typically won’t see practical light in my lifetime,” Dr. Rieder said. “But the companies that we are working with are confident people will be using this to improve food safety in the very near future, so that’s very exciting.”