It seems like every year there are a growing number of food product recalls in response to outbreaks of illness caused by nasty bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. In 2010 we had outbreaks in lettuce, tomatoes, and alfalfa sprouts that sickened hundreds of people. In fact, there are 48 million reported cases of food borne illness every year and an estimated 3,000 deaths.
Restaurants often fall victim to blame for contamination that happened earlier in the food supply chain, but that doesn’t excuse them from responsibility. Instead, food service businesses have to be more vigilant than ever when preparing food for customers. You simply can’t trust that the ingredients coming in your back door are completely safe.
That’s why it was such encouraging news to hear that a Denver based biotech company called Beacon Food Safety has developed a comprehensive, super fast testing device that can detect up to 112 different kinds of food borne pathogens within a couple hours, and often within just a few minutes.
The tester resembles a standard thumb drive, but instead of a couple gigabytes of disk space, this USB device has a chip inside it with 112 individual detectors filled with a protein that was synthetically recreated from a deep sea creature. When this protein comes into contact with a pathogen, it emits a light that can be detected by a computer when the tester is plugged into the USB port.
Whoa, that’s high tech.
The device is revolutionary because pathogen testing has traditionally taken days or weeks to complete. That’s because a sample has to be taken and allowed to steep in a petri dish. The problem has always been that as few as 10 E. coli cells can make a person gravely ill, and it takes a long time for 10 cells to multiply in large enough numbers in a petri dish to be detected.
The Beacon device can’t detect as few as 10 cells just yet, but it can detect pathogens in very small numbers very quickly compared to traditional testing methods.
This kind of technology stands to revolutionize how pathogens are tracked in the food supply chain. The ability to catch contaminated food almost in real time will mean outbreaks can be controlled and sources of illness can be found much more quickly.
For restaurateurs, the Beacon tester can add an extra layer of security to any food safety program. Did some product arrive not quite at temperature? Test it. Has something been sitting in the walk-in a little too long? Test it. Are proteins getting cooked thoroughly enough? Test it!
Beacon plans to make its device available for $20 a pop – a little steep for testing everything every day, but certainly in the realm for random spot checking to help ensure your restaurant’s food safety program is definitely working.