A Purdue University food scientist using infrared spectroscopy took only an hour to find harmful E. coli bacteria in ground beef, a discovery that could cut days off investigations of outbreaks, the university said in a statement on Monday.
Current detection systems take about 48 hours to identify the bacteria.
About 70,000 Americans are sickened by E. coli each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Even with all the other bacteria present in ground beef, we could still detect E. coli and recognize different strains," Lisa Mauer, an associate professor of food science, said in the statement.
The spectroscopy method can also differentiate the strains of E. coli 0157:H7, meaning outbreaks could be tracked more effectively and quickly. Current tests use multiple steps and take almost a week to get results.
Mauer's findings were reported in the August issue of the Journal of Food Science.
The infrared spectroscopy equipment is "off-the-shelf and has been around for decades," Mauer said in an e-mail. "You can find it in most forensic laboratories and many state departments of health."
Mauer said the ground beef tests show promise for using the technology to find other pathogens in additional types of foods. She had already shown that spectroscopy can detect melamine — which sickened about 300,000 infants in China and killed at least six in 2008 — down to one part per million in powdered baby formula.