The objective of this study was to assess laboratories' ability to detect or rule out the presence of four common food pathogens: Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella spp., Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter spp. To do this, qualitative proficiency test data provided by one proficiency test provider from 1999 to 2007 were examined. The annual and cumulative 9-year percentages of false-negative and false-positive responses were calculated.

The cumulative 9-year false-negative rates were 7.8% for E. coli O157:H7, 5.9% for Salmonella spp., 7.2% for L. monocytogenes and 13.6% for Campylobacter spp. Atypical strains and low concentrations of bacteria were more likely to be missed, and the data showed no trend of improving performance over time. Percentages of false-positive results were below 5.0% for all four pathogens.


The results imply that food testing laboratories often fail to detect the presence of these four food pathogens in real food specimens. To improve pathogen detection, supervisors should ensure that testing personnel are adequately trained, that recommended procedures are followed correctly, that samples are properly prepared, that proper conditions (temperature, atmosphere and incubation time) are maintained for good bacterial growth and that recommended quality control procedures are followed. Supervisors should also always investigate reasons for unsatisfactory proficiency test results and take corrective action. Finally, more research is needed into testing practices and proficiency test performance in food testing laboratories.