Preventing outbreaks of foodborne illness before they spread

Western University researchers develop rapid-response test for E. coli contamination

Investigators determined that the source was contaminated vegetables from a popular Mexican fast-food restaurant chain. Although the outbreak had no fatalities, E. coli contamination poses a potentially deadly health risk and costs the North American food industry billions of dollars every year.

A simple solution in a single line

Dr. Michael Rieder, with Robarts Research Institute at Western University in London, Ontario, is determined to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness. With support from Mitacs Accelerate, Dr. Rieder partnered with Adept Chemical Diagnostics to develop a rapid-response E. coli testing kit for food suppliers and grocery stores.

The kit detects the E. coli strain most commonly found in beef (E. coli 0157) by using proteins that are only present in illness-causing bacteria. Test results are easy to read and understand: a single line means no bacteria, and two lines indicate the presence of E. coli in a food sample. The kit’s simplicity means companies can easily incorporate it into their pre-existing quality control procedures.   

The entire test can also be done within one business day – from collecting the sample, to obtaining a result. Current tests typically take more than seven days, and this delay can mean that contaminated food can end up on a plate well before a problem is detected.

In addition to the public health risk posed by contamination, weeks’ worth of product must be destroyed and production halted following a positive test result. With a simple and quick confirmation of E. coli, manufacturers and suppliers can prevent potential outbreaks, reducing the reputational risk and cost to grocery stores, restaurants, and consumers across North America.

Finding value in partnership

Adept’s rapid-response kit is slated for Health Canada approval this year, and both Dr. Rieder and the company are optimistic that their partnership will lead to additional new food safety products.

It’s amazing that we took this idea of a rapid E. coli testing kit from idea to commercialization in five years. In typical R&D timelines, that’s incredibly quick. So now we’re hoping we can expand the technology to other pathogens, like listeria or other strains of E. coli that cause foodborne illness,” says Dr. Rieder.

“Mitacs has been instrumental in forging this partnership. After our initial start, Mitacs helped us to pull in the additional postdocs and students we needed to keep the collaboration going,” he explains.

“Through this project with Adept, my students have been able to acquire important skills and experience with industry that is helping them in their careers now. The impact that Mitacs had throughout this collaboration really can’t be understated.”

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba.

Photo courtesy Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, Western University.

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