For producers of perishables with limited shelf life, shaving even a few days from on-site food safety procedures and getting the product into the hands of customers faster is a valuable goal. And that’s exactly what Florida Urban Organics has done by implementing real-time PCR into their pathogen screening workflow.
Florida Urban Organics is an innovative, certified organic aquaponic farm in Fort Myers that specializes in cultivating lettuce and microgreens with tilapia culture. It was the first organic farm in the US to achieve QCS (Quality Certification Services) certification for Organics and Global G.A.P (Global Partnership for Good Agricultural Practice) certification, a Global Food Safety initiative (GFSI) recognized standard.
As Valerie Vivian-Rogers, Microbiology Laboratory Manager at Florida Urban Organics explains, “GLOBAL G.A.P. certification opens valuable new markets, and helps satisfy the food safety and sustainability specifications of retailers and buyers. It assures our customers that we follow good agricultural practices for food safety and that our environmental management practices meet GLOBAL G.A.P. requirements.”
Microbial contamination of ready-to-eat produce can occur at any stage of the production cycle. Indeed, pathogen internalization occurs more often during growth than post-harvest. Contamination is a complex process, with pathogens frequently confounding common sanitization procedures through biofilm production or internalization. Prevention and early detection is thus an important step in food safety monitoring.
For day-to-day environmental and product monitoring the microbiology lab team uses the SureTect™ Real-Time PCR System (Thermo Scientific) to screen for the presence of Salmonella species, E. coli O157:H7 (produce) and Listeria species (water only). Results are ready by the next day instead of three days for traditional culture-based systems and the method requires less hands-on time. PCR screening is more sensitive, detecting low numbers of pathogens with a single pre-enrichment step and overcoming effects of complex food matrices. This makes it highly effective in screening for internalized as well as surface microbes.
The rapid turnaround in results enables quick release for most products, with onward testing for presumptive positives.
As Valerie Vivian-Rogers explains, “The faster time to results, enables us to reduce inventory storage and move products to market more quickly. This extends their shelf life from two weeks to three weeks for grocers and restaurants, our main customers.”
Not only do microgreens take less time to harvest than traditional crops, packing up to six times the carotenoid and vitamin content of more mature versions in a 7–14 day growth period, but the farm itself operates on one-tenth the traditional area and uses 85% less water. Reflecting the ‘small is beautiful’ ethos of Florida Urban Organics, one of the many features that Vivian-Rogers appreciates in the SureTect system is its small instrument footprint, taking up minimal bench space in a busy laboratory.
“By implementing the SureTect system, we have gained a week and can guarantee three weeks’ shelf life for the lettuce and microgreens at the store or restaurant. We are able to claim maximum freshness, cleanliness and reliability for our products”, she says.
Read the full interview with Valerie Vivian-Rogers, Microbiology Laboratory Manager at Florida Urban Organics and learn more about how the SureTect Real-Time PCR System can speed food safety testing.