WASHINGTON (AP) - The food industry soon will be able to quickly and accurately detect E. coli bacteria in meat, produce and other products under a test developed by Agriculture Department scientists, officials said Thursday.
The test, described as similar in method to a home pregnancy test, can determine the presence of a dangerous strain of E. coli within five to 10 minutes instead of 48 hours or more, said USDA scientist Dan Laster.
"We think this will encourage more testing of meat and other foods because it is such a simple process," said Laster, who developed the material used in the tests at the agency's Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the tests will be used to find E. coli in food "before it gets to the grocery store and the kitchen table." The food industry performs such tests voluntarily.
The tests will be marketed for about $10 each beginning in two weeks by Meridian Diagnostics Inc. of Cincinnati, which developed them along with the Agriculture Department. Meridian already makes tests for many infectious illnesses.
The company also plans to apply for Food and Drug Administration approval for consumer uses beyond the wholesale food industry, perhaps even in private homes, said Meridian Chairman William J. Motto.
"In theory, you could use it anywhere," Motto said.
People infected with E. coli bacteria develop bloody diarrhea and stomach cramps, and it can be fatal. It is most dangerous to infants, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
Just this week, a major hamburger supplier was forced to recall 40,000 pounds of meat because of fears of E. coli contamination, and the Centers for Disease Control reported Thursday that contaminated alfalfa sprouts sickened some 70 people in Michigan and Virginia.
Some current E. coli tests work as rapidly as the new test, but are not as accurate. And those that are as accurate take longer and cost more, officials said.
In general, the tests would be used this way: A sample of fluid from meat or produce - for example, water used to wash strawberries - would be placed in a plastic well.
A color would immediately appear indicating that the test was done properly. Then within a few minutes, a second color would appear to indicate whether dangerous E. coli are present.
Companies usually test samples from a batch of meat or produce to check for harmful bacteria in the entire lot.
If the test performs as well in private industry as it has in the laboratory, Glickman said it would be added to the Agriculture Department's own food-testing programs. That testing, by federal inspectors, is in addition to the food industry's own voluntary testing.
Eventually, Laster said, scientists hope to develop similar tests that can be used on animals before they are slaughtered for food.
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