Pathogen detection in raw chicken
Surveillance studies in Malaysia have shown that around 90% of raw chickens in the market are positive for Salmonella and Campylobacter jejuni contamination. Approximately 35–88% of raw chicken being contaminated with Salmonella; 50–90% of farmed chickens and 30–45% of raw chicken contaminated with C. jejuni.
The increased scale of food production and global food trading have raised the risk of failures in food safety monitoring systems to detect foodborne pathogens. Unfortunately, the conventional laboratory-based testing approaches of raw chicken are too slow and can no longer meet the demands of today’s large-scale food production. It currently takes two to seven days to complete. A major problem in the current approaches to detect foodborne pathogens is that products must be sacrificed when tested, making the process an expensive affair as it reduces profit margins and raises price. Although new molecular approaches have been adopted to speed up the detection time, the widespread use of this technology is hampered by challenges such as high operational cost and dependency of highly skilled labour. The technology also suffers from low performance fidelity, which is caused by biological interference.
Dr Chai Lay Ching, food microbiologist from Faculty of Science, University of Malaya (UM), proposed a solution to identify pathogenic bacteria in food based on the detection of specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced by bacteria.
Microorganisms are known to emit specific VOCs as gases during the process of breaking down food. The VOCs are a diverse group of carbon-based chemicals that are volatile at ambient temperature and can be detected through smell. Different types of bacteria produce their own VOC signatures. These findings have led the researcher to develop a novel and rapid method to detect bacterial spoilage in food products in a real-time fashion and non-destructive manner, and she has been named as one of the three winners for the Malaysian L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award.
VOCs analysis has been used in clinical diagnosis of various bacterial diseases in humans, such as detection of Clostridium difficile, C. jejuni and Vibrio cholerae in patients’ stools. Preliminary laboratory results showed a distinctive VOC-profile associated with C. jejuni in specific laboratory conditions, suggesting the potential of VOC-based biosensors or electric noses that can sniff out these highly pathogenic bacteria in food.
“I accidentally found that Campylobacter produces a very specific scent when we grow them on the agar plate. This allowed me to correctly identify samples with Campylobacter from the negatives ones,” Dr Chai explained.
The findings from this study will generate a database of volatilome of foodborne associated Salmonella and C. jejuni contamination in raw chicken and different carbon substrates.
This work is key for future development of a real-time monitoring system that meets the ideal high-throughput detection criteria. It can be automated, is easy to perform and instantly detects contamination. The application will be key in saving lives and reducing morbidities-associated with these bacteria, as well as helping the food industry to save cost. The successful completion of this project will lead to a better understanding of bacterial metabolism and adaption in different types of substrates, which will help us understand the impact of environment on bacterial growth.
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