11/29/2012 05:27 EST | Updated 01/29/2013 05:12 EST

Canadian Scientists Look For Quicker E. Coli, Listeria Tests


Canadian scientists are being asked to find faster ways to test for two dangerous bacteria that can be found in our food — E. coli and listeria.

Possible E. coli contamination was the reason behind a recent beef recall in Alberta. Listeria was the bacteria behind the outbreak that killed 22 people in 2008 in seven provinces.

Genome Canada awarded one contract for a new listeria test in October. The one for E. coli will be finalized in January.

Pierre Meulien is the president and CEO of Genome Canada.

"Hopefully we can do this much more rapidly," he said. "We're talking about what would be useful is less than an hour, maybe 15 minutes."

That's a dramatic contrast to the current sitation. It now takes 10 hours for a lab to confirm E. coli, five days for listeria. And Meulien pointed out that a genetic test can be done on site.

"So that you could many times in any particular food processing operation test a carcass, cheese, milk whatever kind of product you're in the process of making," Meulien said.

Dr. David Chalak is a veterinarian in Alberta. He's also chair of the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, which is chipping in for part of this research. He says better testing helps industry find more foreign markets.

"Consumers in foreign countries have the same concerns as Canadians," Chalak said.

He was involved in the latest recall in Alberta, with XL Foods, and he said getting timely results can be difficult.

"When the plant is in Brooks [Alberta] and you've got to take the samples to Calgary, there is travel time. I mean a 10-hour test is when it goes on the Petri dish. So 10 hours? Don't take that literally. You're basically looking at 24 hours."

Both projects have tight deadlines. The scientists must finish their project within 18 months. Meulien hopes one day there will be similar tests for other harmful bacteria, such as C. difficile in hospitals.

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