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Carlsbad Biotech Company Provides Food Safety Tests for the Summer Olympics in Beijing

Photo caption:


(Photo: Dynabeads attach to harmful bacteria in food safety test. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )


The Chinese government is trying to leave no stone unturned when it comes to security at the Summer Olympics. That includes testing the food served to athletes and coaches to make sure it's safe from harmful bacteria.


A Carlsbad-based biotech company has provided one of the food safety tests. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.


The order from the Chinese government was not a small one. It was looking for a way to safeguard the food supply for some 16,000 athletes and coaches at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Carlsbad-based Invitrogen got the job.


Dr. James Meegan is the company's director of research and development.


Dr. James Meegan: As you can imagine the Olympics are very difficult in supplying food; a brand new facility, temporary employees, a rush to get food out. So, it's a real challenge to make sure that food is safe, and in addition, of course, it could be a potential target where contaminating food from a bioterrorist's point of view would be a concern.


Dr. Meegan stands in the Invitrogen laboratories with the product that helped win the Olympic bid.

They're called Dynabeads. These microscopic particles help screen food for harmful bacteria like E Coli and salmonella.


Meegan says one of the biggest challenges is isolating bacteria from food and liquids so it can be tested.


He says that's where the beads come in.


Meegan : And so what we do is we take an antibody, and an antibody is a biological molecule that's made to attach to a bacteria, and you take that antibody, and we biochemically attach it to a very small bead, and think of these beads as microscopic BBs or jewelry, with an iron core.


Meegan explains how the beads work in an actual test.


Meegan: If you had a apple juice or something like that and wanted to know if there is this bad bacteria in there, you could add these beads, and they go around and attach to any of the bad bacteria there. Then you can bring a magnet up against the side of the beaker, and all of the beads, because they have a metal core, will be pulled over to the side.


These beads were used in the U.S. last year to test peanut butter during an outbreak of salmonella. They were also used to test spinach for contamination during an outbreak of E Coli in the fall of 2006. 


Meegan grabs a beaker and fills it with liquid. He drops in some Dynabeads and waits about two minutes. He then puts the beaker in a magnetic holder.


Shortly, clumps of discolored beads are pulled to the side of the magnet.


The bacteria are now isolated and ready for testing.


Meegan says the beads can be used in a variety of settings, including commercial kitchens and places where food is processed.


Meegan: Right now in some of the incidents that have occurred, whether it be salmonella in peanut butter last year, or E Coli in spinach a ways back, all of those cases were after it had gotten out into the hands of the consumer. The idea is to be able to stop it before, not have to recall it, but not ever let it get out into the consumers' hands.


Azi Maroufi is an epidemiologist with the San Diego County Department of Health . She says even if food at the Olympics is thoroughly screened and tested, there's no guarantee people won't get sick.


Azi Maroufi : It's possible for the food to still become contaminated through improper handling of food by kitchen workers who may be infected. They can, during handling of food, if they don't do proper hygiene after use of the restroom, they can still possibly contaminate the food.


Maroufi says when there's an outbreak of disease the culprit isn't always identified.


Maroufi: In a lot of the food-borne illnesses that we investigate, we cannot say that it was because a food was contaminated, or a food handler was involved.


Nonetheless, Invitrogen has sold hundreds of Dynabead kits to the Chinese for the Summer Olympics. The government isn't revealing where or when the tests will be used.


Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News. 


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