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Germophobes, Rejoice: A Quick Way to Test for Bacteria in Food is Coming

Who hasn’t looked at a buffet and thought, “I’m taking my life in my hands”? Good news, germophobes! There is a quick, cheap way to test for bacterial contamination in fresh food and water on the horizon.

Food science researchers have developed a two-step method recently published in the journal Food Microbiology. One step involves a bacteria-detecting chip that, when used with a microscope, can test whether raw foods and liquids (like uncooked spinach or fresh mango juice) carry any bacterial contamination. They’ve developed a home version that works via a common smartphone microscope adapter and an app that can ‘read’ the presence of bacteria from the sample on the chip.

The standard method for culturing bacteria from food samples, known as an aerobic plate count (APC) takes two days.

“There are some others that are faster, but they are not very sensitive or reliable because ingredients in the food can interfere with them,” says Lili He, a food scientist with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

By contrast, the method developed by He’s team can detect as few as 100 bacteria cells per 1 milliliter of solution, compared to a sensitivity of 10,000 cells for other rapid methods. And while it’s faster than two days, it still takes about two hours. So unless they can speed up the prototype before commercializing (it’s still in development), it’ll be a while until we can carry this nifty little device to every dhaba and wedding buffet.

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