Atencia said the connection to produce industry members has been invaluable in leading his company down this path. “I started talking to growers and discovered the big, big impact developing a rapid diagnostic test could have for the produce industry.” Pathotrak plans to conduct the pilot project with a small select number of clients with about 10 tests a day starting later this fall. A year from now, his expectation is that the test will be available in more labs and in a greater quantity. But he cautioned that widespread use is still a couple years away. “Blue sky is 2025. By then I hope that we will have changed the food safety dynamic in produce,” he said. Rafael Davila, who founded the startup Priority Sampling as a service company in 2016, said speeding up the diagnostic process in the lab is critical but so is speeding up the sampling process. In fact, because of the Food Safety Cohort, of which his company is a member, Priority Sampling is collaborating with Pathotrak to figure out a way to start the testing in the field even before the sample gets to the lab. The clock, he said, starts ticking once the sample is gathered in the field. The quicker you can get the testing started, the quicker you will get the results. Davila said when he started his company it was a “boots and bags” approach. “We would lace up the boots and walk the fields placing the samples in bags,” he said. “I would start the crews in King City and they’d move north collecting samples all

day long. About 6 p.m., we would drop them off at the lab.” That would start the 24 hour clock on testing results, meaning the results wouldn’t be available until as long as two days after the samples were collected. In the past half-dozen years, Priority Sampling has improved its process and added technology to speed up the sampling. The collection restrictions have also become more standardized, regulated and stringent. Davila said he is working on ways to speed up the sampling and believes the effort to bring the lab to the field to start the testing almost immediately after the sample has been gathered could be a game changer. “It’s outside the box thinking, but I think it is a realistic possibility.” When Davila started the company, he followed the KISS philosophy—Keep It Simple Stupid. Today, the company’s founder still thinks that philosophy has applicability, but he has also learned to embrace the agtech world and has come to realize that there are potential solutions to a host of issues that would not have even been considered a few years ago. “It’s the new norm and now people are accepting of ideas that four years ago they would have laughed at,” he said. Collecting produce samples via robotic arms in the field and then simultaneously start the testing of that sample may come to fruition sooner than later. The WGCIT Food Safety Cohort has brought that far-reaching idea into the realm of possibility.

Priority Sampling working in a romaine field

Atencia credits WGCIT and the Food Safety Cohort for moving Pathotrak into the realm of fresh produce food safety. He revealed the testing method his company is touting stems from research developed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland, College Park, where he was a professor. Initially, Pathotrak was focused on developing the testing method in the meat industry. But about a year ago, Atencia talked to Donohue who encouraged him to apply to be a member of the just-forming Food Safety Cohort. “When we were accepted, we turned our attention to fresh produce,” he said.

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