Phila. biotech gets global attention for food safety test

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Ali Gorman reports.

A University City biotech company says it has an easier and faster way to detect bacteria, and prevent food poisoning or spoiled flavors.

New federal food safety rules require food makers to step up their testing to prevent contamination.

But even when the issue is flavor, not safety itself, companies are keen to stay ahead of their competitors.

For two decades, Yards Brewing Company has worked to put Philadelphia on the national beer map.

Co-founder Tom Kehoe says the success is built on good - and consistent - flavor.

If the flavor slips even for a short time, Kehoe says, "They're not going to try your beer again."

The biggest culprit is microscopic bacteria. It's not harmful, but it can sour the taste.

"Even a single cell in a bottle can do that," notes Franklin Winslow, Yards' Director of Quality Assurance.

To keep the bacteria out, Yards constantly runs a new test created by Invisible Sentinel, a biotech company in University City.

Invisible Sentinel's patented test is also getting a lot of attention from makers focused on food safety, especially in light of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses at Chipotle restaurants, and recalls from half a dozen companies.

The test has been approved by AOAC International, an association which sets standards for microbial food testing.

It's simple, new tool looks for the DNA footprint of microorganisms, whether it's in beer, wine, beef, or other food.

"It takes one copy of the DNA and multiplies it - like a copy machine," says research director Kristen Kahle, Ph.D.

Kahle says samples go through several steps to isolate any bacteria, then they're dropped into a device similar to a pregnancy test.

Within minutes, you know if you have contamination.

"Two lines positive, and one negative," says Kahle, moving the slides on a pair of tests.

Invisible Sentinel can be used for any of the major causes of foodborne illness including listeria, salmonella and E.coli.

Co-founder Ben Pascal says the patented technology is being used by more than 150 companies around the world, locally from Yards to Wawa.

It's fast and accurate.

"Quality and safety are their No. 1 priority," says Pascal of his customers.

Tom Kehoe says potential problems are detected and fixed fast.

"It just makes us feel confident about what we're sending out," he notes.

Pascal and co-founder Nicholas Siciliano came up with the idea for their test in the Siciliano family kitchen in the Lehigh Valley.

Pascal, with a background in biology and business, knew the food industry needed a faster test that could be done in the plant by workers, not specialized scientists.

And it's not just for finished products. Candy makers are also using it to ensure raw ingredients are safe.

The company makes the equipment in University City, with its staff of about three dozen.
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