Image: VerifEye light-scanner
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
VerifEye project manager Gavin Poole puts his hand, smeared with a hand lotion to simulate fecal matter, under the light of the VerifEye device to demonstrate that the material shows up bright red on the screen at a trade show March 19 in Washington.
updated 4/5/2004 3:36:41 PM ET 2004-04-05T19:36:41

With just a flicker of blue light, little Johnny’s mother one day may know for sure whether her son washed his hands before dinner.

New light-scanning technology borrowed from the slaughterhouse promises to help hospital workers, restaurant employees — one day, even kids — make sure that hand washing zaps some germs that can carry deadly illnesses.

A device the size of an electric hand dryer detects fecal contamination and pinpoints on a digital display where on a person’s hands more scrubbing is needed.

eMerge Interactive Inc., a struggling technology company in Sebastian, Fla., is hoping to tweak light scanners it already sells to beef plants to detect the same kinds of nasty germs on humans.

The blue-light scanners could dramatically improve hygiene among employees who forget to wash their hands after bathroom breaks. This practice is a leading cause of food poisoning that afflicts tens of millions of Americans every year.

Most hands not clean enough
Studies show people typically fail to scrub around fingernails and between fingers adequately. The government recommends people wash their hands for at least 20 seconds; researchers find many people do not even use soap.

“People are not good at handwashing,” said Janet Anderson, a nutritionist at Utah State University. “We find that unless sinks are very close to where people are handling food, they don’t wash their hands well.”

eMerge, which demonstrated an early prototype for The Associated Press, said its first clean-hand scanners could go on sale as early as year’s end to restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals and day-care centers. Using identification cards, the devices can even record which employees scrubbed acceptably and which ones still have dirty hands.

“Being able to tell whether there’s fecal matter is a major improvement,” said Jim Mann, executive director of The Handwashing Leadership Forum, a group in Illinois that studies food-borne outbreaks.

Scanners won't detect pathogens
Mann called the scanning technology promising but “not a silver bullet” because it cannot detect pathogens such as salmonella or viruses that do not always spread initially in fecal contamination. Salmonella can be present in raw eggs, for example.

Using a specific light wavelength, the scanners cause a fluorescence in even minuscule amounts of fecal contamination that could carry dangerous bacteria like E. coli; it shows up on a built-in display as a bright red spot on a person’s dirty hand.

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“Nobody wants to have doo-doo on their burger,” said Jacob Petrich, a biophysical chemist at Iowa State University who invented the meat-scanning technology with two scientists, Thomas A. Casey and Mark A. Rasmussen, at the Agriculture Department.

Experts say the high-speed beef scanners work faster — examining 500 beef carcasses every hour — and more accurately than government inspectors visually looking for contamination on meat in packing plants. Excel Corp., a leading processor, is installing the scanners in all its plants across North America.

In meat plants, the scanners look for evidence of chlorophyl, the green pigments found in plants and grasses common to cow diets. The clean-hands scanners will need to search for other signatures, not just chlorophyl, that might signal contamination by meat eaters: Human diets are much more diverse than cattle’s.

People on the popular Atkins diet, for example, would have almost no chlorophyl in their systems, said eMerge’s executive vice president, Richard Stroman. He declined to say which new markers the company is investigating, calling that a trade secret.

“If you only eat beer and cheese pizza, what kind of signatures are you going to get,” asked Petrich, who suggested that hospitals or restaurants could ask employees to swallow chlorophyl tablets. “This is do-able, it’s just a question of technology, of how you look at the spectral signatures of diets.”

eMerge sells the beef scanners under an exclusive license with Petrich and the other inventors, who won a federal patent in June 1999. The company, whose stock closed Friday at $1.86, has lost nearly $200 million since it started operations.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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