An imaging technology under development as part of a partnership between the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and eMerge Interactive, Inc. of Sebastion, Fla., has shown in recent trials that it can detect trace levels of fecal contamination on beef carcasses.

The new system is a real-time, electronically controlled optical instrument that creates images of carcasses and displays them on a nearby monitor, according to Al Gapsch, vice president of research and development for eMerge. Trials conducted last summer at Oklahoma State University and University of Florida indicated that trace levels of fecal contamination invisible to the naked eye could be easily seen in these images, providing workers with a detailed map of areas requiring trimming - as well as contamination-free areas that can be preserved. The prototype was also successful in evaluating fecal decontamination on car-casses subjected to levels high-temperature steam from steam vacuums or steam cabinets - technologies commonly used for microbial intervention in the beef industry.

"We're very pleased with the results of [the] trials," Gapsch said. "We now know that the instrument works on the carcasses of animals whether they've been on grass or finishing feed, and that not eve steam pasteurization, acid washes or ir-radiation diminish its accuracy."

Gapsch said that while laser technology at USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) served as the basis for developing the instrument, cost considerations led the research team to rely on visible light as they proceeded. The resulting in strument utilizes optical fluorescence in the blue light range, said Gapsch, who explained that fecal material fluoresces at a certain wavelength.

The technology was patented by scientists at ARS in collaboration with staff at Iowa State University, but has been exclusively licensed by eMerge and is being further developed under a cooperative research and development agreement. Engineers at eMerge have already developed prototypes based on the technology that can scan an entire side of beef for fecal contamination.

Although the optical instrument is being used for whole-carcass imaging of beef cattle, eMerge also has plans to investigate additional applications of the technology, including alternate sources of protein such as pork. Smaller versions of the instrument may ultimately prove useful for checking smaller cuts of meat as well as employees' hands," said eMerge president Scott Matthews.

In the meantime, eMerge is currently in discussions with U.S. packers, Matthews said. "We're in the process of choosing an industry partner or two to help us de-velop the final specifications for this product," he said. " The next phase will include fullscale packing-plant testing. We expect beta testing to begin early next year, or possibly sooner."