One of the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an increased awareness of and sensitivity to food safety issues by the general public. As government regulators, food testing laboratories, and food producers have become better at conducting outbreak tracing, companies are realizing the necessity of having a robust pathogen testing program in place to avoid the risk of an outbreak.
As a result of the increased awareness, food testing labs faced some challenges early in the pandemic while trying to meet demand for pathogen testing and detection. At the same time, some new trends and ideas have come about, demonstrating how the understanding of food pathogens and food safety is always advancing.
The Current State of Food Safety Pathogen Testing
Generally speaking, the U.S. public is well aware, either through personal experiences or conversation, of the ongoing labor shortages caused in part by the pandemic. The food manufacturing industry has also felt the effects of these shortages—from lab technician turnover and struggling to find new technicians to replace those who are leaving, and issues with working in person in a laboratory setting where social distancing requirements are enforced. Meanwhile, as restaurants, schools, and other food service venues closed, food production in retail spiked, sending demand for retail food testing to new heights.
On top of this elevated retail demand, consumers have become more invested in the safety of the food they are purchasing, and more demanding of food safety testing information. As a result, food manufacturing labs have had to keep up with increased customer demands, such as those calling for robust validations, including different sample sizes than typically used, requesting quicker turnaround times, and requiring novel matrices.
To keep pace with these increased demands among ongoing labor shortages, labs have relied more heavily on implementing the most efficient testing solutions. Automation in the lab can provide a solution that allows for time savings, while also taking out the subjectivity of the test method and results interpretation.
Where Pathogen Testing Is Heading
One rising solution to labor shortages is the use of automation in food testing laboratories. As labs struggled to source employees during the pandemic, there was a major shift toward using contract labs to help keep up with testing demands; however, contract labs have faced the same worker shortage struggles and are leaning heavily on automation technologies as a result. In fact, some contract labs are now leading a shift to testing automation because these technologies help food testing labs increase efficiency by reducing technician time when testing for pathogens. Additionally, the learning curve when hiring new technicians to replace lost workers is significantly shorter with automated testing, as the technician does not need to manually count.
Customer demand influences the future of pathogen testing and detection. Historically, pathogen testing has been a qualitative result—looking to see whether there is a presence or an absence of the target pathogen. However, a new concept of pathogen testing has emerged due, in part, to increased knowledge and sensitivity around food safety. Customers are increasingly demanding quantitative testing. With quantitative testing, labs are now looking for the number of a target pathogen that is present in food. This method is of major interest to the poultry industry, which is currently the leading industry seeking advancement for quantitative testing. Quantitative results are especially important for Salmonella testing in the poultry industry, as the pathogen is widely present, and knowing the qualitative result of Salmonella testing is not as valuable as knowing how much of it is present.
Another concept at the forefront of pathogen testing is the idea of serotyping. Serotypes are groups within a single species of microorganism that have distinctive surface features that may make them more of a food safety risk. For example, certain Salmonella serotypes have a higher propensity to cause foodborne illness, so if food manufacturers can concentrate on limiting the levels of these Salmonella serotypes, they will produce a safer food for their consumers. As the industry continues researching pathogens, scientists can further understand the different strains of each pathogen, allowing pathogen testing and detection methods to continue advancing.