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Simple, Inexpensive Camera System Detects Foodborne Toxins

Posted by Sandra Avant, Public Affairs Specialist, Agricultural Research Service in Health and Safety Research and Science USDA Results
Feb 21, 2017
A system used to detect active Shiga toxin
USDA-ARS scientists developed this low-cost yet effective system to detect active Shiga toxin. USDA-ARS photo by Reuven Rasooly.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

As the weather heats up this summer, many of us are firing up our grills and going on picnics. But one thing we all want to avoid is getting food poisoning from the food or beverages we consume.

Each year, an estimated 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. An obstacle to extensive testing of foods for microbes, pathogens and toxins that cause food poisoning is equipment cost, according to an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientist.

Reuven Rasooly, a chemist at ARS’s Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California, has developed a simple and inexpensive system for detecting Shiga toxin, a product of pathogenic Escherichia coli O157:H7. This particular pathogen causes about 73,000 cases of food poisoning and more than 60 deaths in the United States each year.

The new system uses a camera and a light-emitting source to detect active toxins. Tests used today cannot distinguish between the active and inactive form of Shiga toxin, Rasooly says. It’s important to tell the difference between the two, because the toxin’s active form poses a threat to humans while the inactive form does not.

“We need devices that are affordable and sensitive to reduce the sources and incidence of foodborne illness,” Rasooly says. “Equipment such as a commercial fluorometer, typically used to detect Shiga toxin and other pathogens, is too expensive for developing countries, where the risk of foodborne illness and outbreaks is greatest.”

In a study, Rasooly and his colleagues showed that the camera system was as effective in measuring Shiga toxin activity as a fluorometer. Both instruments had the same toxin detection levels. The difference is that a fluorometer costs about $35,000 while the camera only costs $300, making it an affordable alternative for diagnostic labs.

In addition, the new system can easily be adapted for detecting other foodborne toxins. Rasooly recently demonstrated that the camera system can be used to detect Aflatoxin B1, a toxin produced by Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.

“The toxin contaminates crops and foodstuffs worldwide, affecting 4.5 billion people,” Rasooly says.

For an interactive look at USDA’s work to ensure your food is safe, visit the USDA Results project on Medium.com and read Chapter Seven: Safer Food and Greater Consumer Confidence.

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Comments

Phuong
Jul 13, 2016

Hello,
The camera is available at the market? Thanks

Alyssa Ferd
Jul 20, 2016

Sounds great! The camera will be a great and affordable alternative to the expensive tests that are being done to detect toxins in food. Food borne illnesses have always been a threat especially during hot and humid summer months. Looking forward to using this new system.

Ben Weaver
Jul 20, 2016

@Phuong - thanks for your interest. We are not aware of the system being sold commercially as a unit. The components for the system are commercially available, though, and information on where to get the components and how to assemble them can be found in Rasooly’s manuscript, Sensitive detection of active Shiga toxin using low cost CCD based optical detector.