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Passing the test: university research team develops improved method for tracing dangerous bacterium.

A 1985 outbreak of listeriosis in southern California resulted in the deaths of 47 people.

The disease was traced to a Mexican-style cheese sold in the area.

Listeriosis is caused by a bacterium that usually is associated with dairy products. It can, however, affect meat and poultry products as well. Researchers at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville have made a breakthrough that could aid in preventing future outbreaks of the disease.

The California deaths led the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to adopt "zero tolerance" levels for the bacterium in cooked, ready-to-eat foods.

A major problem with detecting the bacterium, known as listeria monocytogenes, in food products has been the lack of a rapid testing process. Conventional methods require from five to seven days to identify the bacterium, often too late to prevent widespread contamination. Such contamination required the recall of millions of dollars worth of ice cream nationwide in 1985 and 1986.

The bacterium causes as many as 1,850 cases of food-borne illnesses and 425 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control at Atlanta.

On June 30, officials of the university's department of food science announced they had developed a better test to detect the bacterium in meat and poultry.

The breakthrough, the result of a five-year project funded in part by a grant from the Southeastern Poultry and Egg Association, came following the development of an antibody. The university has applied for a patent on the antibody. Several biotechnology companies in the United States and Europe have contacted the university about commercially developing the testing method.

The discovery is described in detail in a paper written by Michael Johnson, a professor of food science at the university, and Arun Bhunia, a research associate in the department. The paper was published in the June issue of Applied And Environmental Microbiology.

Bhunia, who joined the research team in 1989, conducted many of the experiments that led to the discovery of the antibody and, subsequently, the user-friendly test method.

Dangerous Disease

There are several species of listeria, many of which are harmless. Listeria monocytogenes is pathogenic, though, and can reproduce at refrigerator temperatures that usually hold bacteria in check.

"It's particularly dangerous for pregnant women and other immune-compromised people," Johnson says.

Cancer patients and heart, liver and kidney transplant patients are included in the high-risk category due to their inability to ward off infections.

The improved testing method has advantages over past detection methods, the most important being the fact it is cheaper and allows testers to more quickly determine the presence of the pathogen.

While other tests detect the harmless species of listeria, warranting further testing, the UA method detects only listeria monocytogenes. The test requires about two hours and takes no more than 24 hours to indicate the presence of the pathogen.

"It's quicker, cheaper and easier to perform," Johnson says of the test.

Johnson says the cost of test kit materials, estimated at $9, is nominal considering the high cost of recalling and destroying tainted food products.
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Title Annotation:University of Arkansas at Fayetteville; listeria monocytogenes
Author:Taylor, Tim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 13, 1992
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