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Surprising Science

Synthetic Biology Keeping Your Food Safe

Bacteria-tainted produce can pose a serious threat to human health but current tests for disease take too long for food producers to use. Now a Boston company is building a faster test.

What’s the Latest Development?

Foodborne illness that results from bacterial infection is relatively rare but the consequences can be serious, such as in 2011 when a cantaloupe shipment infected with listeria resulted in the deaths of 33 people. A year later, listeria-tainted cheese killed four. But soon, a Boston-based company willmarket a test kit that detects this deadly bacterium in the processing plant, before it reaches the grocery store. “They’ve used the tools of synthetic biology to create this novel, rapid test for Listeria contamination. … The lag time built into existing tests forces companies that deal in perishable foods to make a tough choice between waiting for results or shipping potentially unsafe food.”

What’s the Big Idea?

The new test is likely to be used because the results can be delivered in three to four hours, compared to 16 and 48 hours for current tests on the market. “The faster you can get results, the closer to real time, the better off you are,” said Will Daniels, senior vice president of Earthbound Farms. His company grows and packages organic salads and other produce. “Food processors are the initial target market for [the] test kit, such as those who wash and package freshly harvested lettuce for retail sale. Twelve international food companies will begin using the system in July. It won’t be generally available until January 2014.”

Read it at Scientific America

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