Challenging the “gold standard” of colony-forming units - Validation of a multiplex real-time PCR for quantification of viable Campylobacter spp. in meat rinses
Campylobacter jejuni is the leading bacterial food-borne pathogen in Europe. Despite the accepted limits of cultural detection of the fastidious bacterium, the “gold standard” in food microbiology is still the determination of colony-forming units (CFU). As an alternative, a live/dead differentiating qPCR has been established, using propidium monoazide (PMA) as DNA-intercalating crosslink agent for inactivating DNA from dead, membrane-compromised cells. The PMA treatment was combined with the addition of an internal sample process control (ISPC), i.e. a known number of dead C. sputorum cells to the samples. The ISPC enables i), monitoring the effective reduction of dead cell signal by the light-activated DNA-intercalating dye PMA, and ii), compensation for potential DNA losses during processing. Here, we optimized the method for routine application and performed a full validation of the method according to ISO 16140-2:2016(E) for the quantification of live thermophilic Campylobacter spp. in meat rinses against the classical enumeration method ISO 10272-2:2017. In order to render the method applicable and cost-effective for practical application, the ISPC was lyophilized to be distributable to routine laboratories. In addition, a triplex qPCR was established to simultaneously quantify thermophilic Campylobacter, the ISPC and an internal amplification control (IAC). Its performance was statistically similar to the two duplex qPCRs up to a contamination level of 4.7 log₁₀ Campylobacter per ml of meat rinse. The limit of quantification (LOQ) of the alternative method was around 20 genomic equivalents per PCR reaction, i.e. 2.3 log₁₀ live Campylobacter per ml of sample. The alternative method passed a relative trueness study, confirming the robustness against different meat rinses, and displayed sufficient accuracy within the limits set in ISO 16140-2:2016(E). Finally, the method was validated in an interlaboratory ring trial, confirming that the alternative method was fit for purpose with a tendency of improved repeatability and reproducibility compared to the reference method for CFU determination. Campylobacter served as a model organism, challenging CFU as “gold standard” and could help in guidance to the general acceptance of live/dead differentiating qPCR methods for the detection of food-borne pathogens.