Firm switches from anthrax to food safety

WORKING ON PROTOTYPE: Craig Tuffnell, chief executive of Veritide, a technology company that makes devices for detecting bacteria.
WORKING ON PROTOTYPE: Craig Tuffnell, chief executive of Veritide, a technology company that makes devices for detecting bacteria.

Christchurch start-up Veritide's change in direction from building anthrax detection devices to detecting bacteria on meat has secured it a spot as a finalist in this year's New Zealand Hi-Tech awards.

Until last year the hi-tech company had focused on building devices that could detect threats like anthrax and ricin, but changed tack last year to focus on a product it thinks will tap a much larger market.

Craig Tuffnell, who stepped into the role of chief executive of Veritide in December after 15 years with local firm Aucom Electronics, said Veritide hoped to have its first prototype built within six months.

"With anthrax, let's face it no- one wants to have an anthrax detection device. If they buy it they don't ever want to use it . . . it's a hard sell," Tuffnell said.

"But what we're doing, we can improve efficiencies in the factory by giving them that rapid feedback but we can also add value to the food by making sure it's going out with lower contamination so it has a longer shelf life."

Beef and lamb exporter Anzco is a development partner.

While Veritide's initial focus is on building a device to detect bacteria on meat, the technology could be used to detect bacteria on various foods and on surfaces.

There was a significant market for the device locally, but particularly in the United States and Europe.

"There is about $1 billion worth of spoiled meat in the United States alone every year. The numbers are staggering."

The device would also benefit New Zealand exporters who export fresh meat which has to have a very long shelf life.

Tuffnell said about 500 million swab tests were carried out on food in the US and Europe every year, at a cost of about $5b to $8b.

Veritide's first unit would be portable and could be taken into meatworks to optically sample the meat, using fluorescence-based technology.

"The key advantage of what we're doing is speed."

Swab tests - the current gold standard in meat testing - take about three days to deliver results and that was too long to enable processors to improve their factory processes.

"With us it's real time and no extra cost to do a whole lot more samples."

When food processing plants know the level of bacteria in their environment and on the products, even at safe levels, they can monitor the changing levels of bacteria to help improve their processes.

If they found an increase somewhere in the plant, they could act quickly to find the source of the problem, and adjust their processes to further minimise the bacteria.

A tool that measures the bacteria and gives the response immediately makes it far easier to trace through the processing plant to locate the source of any problems.

Start-up incubator Powerhouse is the lead investor in Veritide.

The company will need to raise more capital later this year and Powerhouse would help guide the company through that process, Tuffnell said.

The Press