More and more, it is becoming true that nothing drives detection and prevention of food-borne illness than technology (and, of course, with advancements in detection come potential increases in exposure to legal liability). No technological advancement may be more significant than Next Generation Sequencing ("Next Gen Sequencing").  

I’ve recently had the opportunity to spend time learning about Next Gen Sequencing with Dr. Andrew Benson, a genetic microbiologist at the University of Nebraska’s Department of Food Science and Technology. Dr. Benson has received large research grants to harness the power of Next Gen sequencing. If you’re interested in the field, take a look at this short video, where Dr. Benson explains the technology, and check out the information on the CAGE (Core for Applied Genomics and Ecology) website.

As described on the CAGE website, this Next Gen technology “allows a single machine to accomplish in 48 hours what used to take an entire room full of machines and an army of
staff a month to achieve.”

Dr. Benson and others at CAGE explain further that:

Having such a powerful diagnostic technique now challenges us to rethink completely how we might go about risk assessment. Instead of looking for a single “indicator organism” in a food sample, we can now look at the entire population of microorganisms in a food sample and ask if the community of organisms present is the expected species that normally occupy that food or if the sample contains numbers of unexpected species, and in particular those species that are unique to fecal or soil environments. Thus, our assessment of “risk” is now based on the entire population, including the most abundant species of fecal and soil communities. Because our assessment is based on the entire composition, multiple species that are unique to feces or soil can be used in the determination, making the assessment much more accurate and robust. Moreover, the assessment is not limited to “risk” as we can also determine if the microbial community in a food sample has shifted toward spoilage (which gives us shelf-life predictions) or is consistent with “good” organoleptic properties of the food. The list of applications goes on and on.

Discoveries using this technology are happening at astonishing speed. PFGE testing, now considered the "gold standard" and generic E.coli testing may soon seem old fashioned and crude.