A major effort on the part of food scientists revolves around keeping the food safe from pathogenic microorganisms that compete with man for available food in this planet. Development of food preservation technologies is based on the vulnerability of microbes to treatments like thermal, chemical, physical and other methods, not injurious to man. How ever efficient the concept of technology may be, in real time practice there are uncertainties and unintentional slip-ups which must be checked before products are released to the market. There is no dearth of reliable analytical tools, with which microbiologists are familiar, that can statistically determine the safety of processed foods but most of them require a few hours to a few days to confirm safety or other wise of the products from infection before releasing to the market.
Any detection platform that is acceptable to the industry as well as the enforcement agencies must not only be sensitive and specific but also be able to accurately detect a variety of pathogens including modified or previously uncharacteristic agents directly from the complex sample matrices. There are many methods currently in vogue using biochemical, immunological, nucleic acid, bio-luminescence, aptamers, bio-chips, evanescent wave bio-sensors, cantilevers, living cells etc. Over 500 companies in the world are working on development of molecular diagnostic systems though only a handful have succeeded in commercializing their innovations in this area. Polymerase based chain reaction (PCR) is a DNA-based detection system that has been found to be efficient and reliable in assessing contamination from a variety of pathogens in raw materials as well as in the finished products. Real time PCR system is claimed to be sensitive to the presence of even less than 10 microorganisms in a complex food material in a very short time.
The Scorpion diagnostic platform being readied by DuPont Qualcom, the joint venture firm between two global giants, each pioneers in their own fields, is being considered as an important break through in food safety monitoring and there will be more such new innovative and fast techniques to reduce the time of detection and increase in the reliability of the results in the near future. The technology is claimed to provide accurate fluorescence based signal generation system with application for in vitro diagnostic, bio-threat detection, genetic analyses, environmental utility and most important in testing of foods and beverages for microbial contamination. It is also possible using this technology to detect difficult to find microbes with high sensitivity, reliability and much less time. Already adopted by USDA for food safety inspection in meat and poultry, this technology is also certified by AOAC International and the French Association of Normalization (AFNOR) for detecting pathogens like E.coli O157:H7, Listeria and other major pathogens affecting food products. The versatility is such that even molds and yeast are detected by the system in small concentrations.
Scorpion Technology and other similar systems are bound to be a very expensive, not within the reach of most of the food industry in India. Any such technology must be cost effective under Indian conditions, if wide spread use is to be ensured. While quality control and food safety assessment facilities available with many food manufacturing units are either nil or very primitive, expecting them to invest heavily on such modern technologies, may be too far-fetched. This is where the GOI MFPI must step in by importing a few such systems into India for use in some of the centrally located food laboratories to begin with and sponsoring development studies in Indian R & D Institutions with the necessary competence and experience to come up with an indigenous design for such a technology at low cost, affordable to the industry.