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How to choose the right pathogen detection system for you.

 Purple gloves conducting a food safety test

The issue of food safety is of major concern to the public, industry and regulators in light of the growing emergence of foodborne pathogens and an increase in food recalls. In addition, greater consumer education in these matters and media coverage almost instantaneously inform the public in the event of a problem.

Cases of E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella contamination are making frequent news headlines in Canada and around the world. Did you know that according to the Government of Canada, every year a total of roughly 4 million (1 in 8) Canadians are affected by a foodborne illness? Of these, there are about1:

  • 11,600 hospitalizations
  • 238 deaths

Testing and risk management for foodborne illness, human-induced risks and new microbial risks are critical in ensuring the highest level of food safety – and reassuring Canadians that the food they’re enjoying is as safe as it is tasty.

Features and benefits: the must-haves that make all the difference

Whether you’re a Quality Assurance Analyst, Lab Technician, Purchasing Manager or related industry professional, your goals are to adhere to the highest standards and implement best practices. With a variety of these systems available on the market, start with the following five criteria when deciding which is tailored to your specific needs: Accuracy, speed, regulatory approval, ease of use and economic viability.

Know your application. Is it for detection of the presence or absence of a pathogen, enumeration of a pathogen or isolation, identification, and characterization of a pathogen for root cause analysis during a corrective action or food product recall? Be sure that the system you use has been approved for your application, whether it is environmental samples or food products. Health Canada’s rigourous pathogen detection system requirements are thorough, and include lists of the specific surfaces and food products for which each system is approved.


The reliability and consistency of results is non-negotiable. Consider your system’s level of sensitivity: does it reflect a true positive rate and false negative rate and does it allow for specificity that reflects a true negative rate and false positive rate? Naturally, false negative and false positive rates should be minimal. In fact, according to the Compendium of Analytical Methods, these should be <2% and <9.6% respectively.

Speed: Time to result and capacity

Next, think about turnaround time as part of efficiency. For food recalls, as in all situations, you need to be able to make decisions quickly on behalf of your company in order to hold or release the product being tested. The difference between minutes, hours and days to receive results affects how rapidly a recall is announced to the public, with delays potentially causing illness and perhaps even mortality. Additionally, for tests approved by Health Canada, most tests can be done at the same time – usually within 24 hours – which represents a significant benefit for manufacturers and retailers of food, as well as consumers.

Dr. Ruby Lee, MSc, PhD, CQA, CHA, Senior Food Safety Specialist at NSF-GFTC, points out that high throughput is essential for some laboratories that test large number of samples per run. “Ask yourself how many samples you can run at a time. Does your technology have the capacity to test 200 or 300 samples for 1 test in 1 run, known as batch testing, which is an important time saver?”

Regulatory approval

When it comes to regulatory approval, Health Canada enforces strict procedures to approve validated method as Official Methods (MFOs), HPB Methods (MFHPBs) and Laboratory Procedures (MFLPs). Be sure the methods used in your laboratory have obtained regulatory approval in the country of origin. If you are exporting your product, look for systems that have approvals and certification that are recognized internationally and specifically at your country of destination, for example, AOAC and AFNOR.

Ease of use

Is the technology easy to use and convenient? Certain technologies require more medium preparation than others − or multiple hands-on transfers which can translate to increased potential of cross-contamination. What’s more, a higher degree of automation and easy transition from one test to another spell added convenience and faster test completion.

Economic viability

Seek out a system that is viable economically: It should represent an affordable initial hardware investment, complemented by low consumables and maintenance cost as well as time, generally, with relation to spill clean-up. Even if your system is economical in terms of high efficiency and output, maintenance costs resulting from frequent breakdowns, for example, can be a major expense. Furthermore, how easy is it to train people on your system? Extensive training time not only costs manpower hours, it also impedes your ability to get samples in and out the door, fast. Systems that follow the same protocol (after enrichment) for all different testing will allow for easier training and economies achieved by rapid processing.

Dr. Lee notes the differences between in-house and outsourced testing, which can impact your turnaround time and costs. “Again, speed of generating laboratory test results is one of the keys to facilitate important decision making. Having to ship samples via courier service and waiting for a third party lab report means extra time and money. In-house labs can also support more rapid release of on-hold products that meet all the microbiological specifications.” Choose a system that represents an affordable initial hardware investment, complemented by low consumables and maintenance costs.

Additional considerations

The robustness of your test system plays a key role in determining its efficacy: Opt for one that doesn’t get “tripped up” by either other organisms or food products.

Finally, no discussion of pathogen detection would be complete without evaluating customer service. Select a company that provides local on-site technical training for set-up, an adequate number of field service reps, and outstanding after-sale follow-up and technical and hardware support.

Focusing on the features of a pathogen detection system that ensures accuracy, speed, regulatory approval, ease of use, and affordability will result in assurance of safe and quality food that leads to peace of mind for you, your customers, and the public.


  1. Government of Canada: 

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