In the wake of the 2006 outbreak of E. coli in bagged spinach, processors are looking for faster, more accurate testing equipment to catch contamination before fresh-cut products leave the facilities.
But before a new piece of technology can be marketed and sold to the industry, it has to be tested outside of a simulated lab, so technology companies are creating partnerships with processors to create innovative solutions for the industry. Verdelli Farms, a Harrisburg, Pa.-based processor specializing in bagged spinach, began testing a new product from Hanson Technologies, Carlisle, Pa., in May.
“It makes sense to have the customer – the processors – involved in the design from the beginning,” said Kyle Olds, director of quality assurance for Verdelli Farms.
Hanson Technologies contacted Verdelli Farms to run a pilot program on a piece of equipment that combined two applications – one that was being developed before the spinach recall and one that came about as a result of the E. coli outbreak.
“They needed someone to try it out in real-life situations,” Olds said.
It’s being tested on Verdelli’s leafy green spinach line, but could be used with any produce. There are commodity-specific issues that would have to be addressed, so the system would be set up differently for spinach as it would for tomatoes.
The new system – an ultra-rapid food safety screening solution – is an inline piece that tests the wash water for contamination – detecting both live and dead organisms. The wash water creates a large sample that provides better statistical confidence.
“You are able to sample effectively 100 percent of the produce you are putting through the wash tank,” said Bill Hanson, president of Hanson Technologies.
Immunoassays are used to test for up to 15 different contaminants and can be completed in less than two hours. Immunoassays are prone to false positives, but since the wash water is saved, there is a sample that can be retested using other methods. The test parameters in the pilot program are testing six times for E. coli O157:H7, which might be “overkill,” Hanson said, but it will provide a better picture of the system’s accuracy.
“What really attracted us was the confidence in the results,” Olds said.
Because all or nearly all of the wash water is sampled, there is a better chance that contaminants would be spotted. And the testing doesn’t destroy the sample so it can be cultured using other methods.
“When we’re done, we’ve retained the sample that you can do standard tests on,” Hanson said.
The speed at which the results come back provided Verdelli Farms with an almost real-time picture of its produce safety. Advanced testing equipment also is less expensive, in addition to the cost savings of not having to recall trucks full of produce if there is a positive finding.
“We know the answer before we have the produce loaded on the trucks,” Olds said.
It’s important that companies work together to advance testing methods for fresh produce, to develop equipment that is suitable for fresh-cut plants. Better tests also will provide brand protection because higher sampling standards will detect lower levels of pathogen and prevent contaminants from reaching the end user, Hanson said.