Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) is not a term that exactly rolls off the tongue, but its application in handheld devices has the potential to change the food industry as we know it.
Palo Alto, California-based ScanX Technologies is working with some of the state’s leading leafy green growers in a pilot programme using its instruments to detect listeria, but president of sales and marketing Craig Carlson said the potential scope could be much broader.
“We’re the company that’s going to be bringing the lab into the field to detect [pathogens] in real-time,” Carlson told participants at the Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) Fresh Connections: Chile event in Santiago last week.
“We’re also focusing on the other main contaminants and pathogens, and also looking at chemicals within pesticides to be able to go and look at key item levels to make sure that they’re hitting EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) requirements.”
He added the same technology could also be used to certify if a fruit or vegetable is organically grown or not, which he said “can be a big problem or issue within our food supply”.
But the biggest problem the company aims to address is food safety and some staggering statistics from the US – 3,000 deaths per year from food poisoning, 130,000 hospitalisations, and some 48 million people affected.
“That’s one in six people in the US and I am sure it’s very similar to what happens here in Chile,” Carlson said.
“How can you go and change this? Today’s food testing process is a cultural programme – you swab it, you grow a culture, you send it to a lab and preliminary results take 30 to 48 hours for final confirmation.”
He said this meant the entire process could take five to seven days, and such a delay was problematic for ready-to-eat produce.
“A lot of it’s already in the food supply before you even get your test results,” he said.
“So what can a real-time solution like ScanX do? Because of this real-time implementation it’ll be able to save lives, reduce illness, and it’ll reduce food waste because many of these products have perishable freshness.
“Many of these products are being held and are losing value of shelf life until they’re actually cleared – and it’ll also protect users’ brands, which is huge for the industry – reduce your recall litigation risk.”
Next steps for ScanX
Carlson said if leafy green growers liked the technology they would probably integrate ScanX in their protocols, and the plan was then to work toward industry certification and ultimately Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.
“That process is probably going to happen toward the end of 2018,” he said.
“As a full supply chain solution we’re starting with the leafy greens industry focusing on listeria in our initial pilots, but then we’ll be going and expanding all the way through the supply chain; all the way through the water to the plants to pre-harvest to post-harvest and all the way through the supply chain up to the customer.
“We’re going to be developing the first worldwide contaminant database so that you’ll be able to go and collect data with these devices – we’ll be able to analyse it and also work with the data subscription.”
Outside the US, he added ScanX would be expanding its efforts to other countries in early-to-mid 2018.
After introducing handheld devices, the plan is to then introduce table-top devices and then high-volume pathogen detectors that can be used in packhouses.
Reflection on recent foodborne illness outbreaks
After the talk, PBUK asked Carlson for his reaction to a salmonella outbreak in the US which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has linked to a Mexican papaya farm.
“I think that’s just indicative of the gaps in our food supply right now within our testing programmes, particularly due to the fact that it takes time for confirmation – five to seven days and there’s not a real-time solution right now,” the expert said.
“And also it’s the fact that we have not implemented fully yet the FSMA (Food Safety Modernisation Act) protocols.
He noted however that the FDA was getting much better at tracing back outbreaks with the help of whole genome sequencing.
“With methods like that it’s much easier to say where it actually came from…for that reason there have been a number of predictions out there that these types of outbreaks and tracing back and recalls are going to advance almost three to five times more – there’s going to be more of them within the next three years.”
He added this was not just an issue in the fresh food arena but in frozen produce as well.
“E. coli and particularly listeria in the environment are very resilient to freezing and adverse temperatures and can last an awful long time,” he said.