Unsure if that meat is still good in your refrigerator or if you can trust your greens not to be contaminated with E. coli? McMaster researchers have developed a solution that will take the headache out of wondering so you will know what is in your food and whether it is safe to eat.
Mechanical and chemical engineers at McMaster, working closely with biochemists from across campus, have joined forces to develop a transparent test patch printed with harmless molecules that can signal contamination as it happens. The patch can be incorporated directly into food packaging, where it can monitor the contents for harmful pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella.
The innovative technology is described in the research journal ACS Nano, as having the potential to replace the traditional “best before” date on food and drinks alike with a definitive indication that it’s time to chuck out that chicken or pour out that milk.
“In the future, if you go to a store and you want to be sure the meat you’re buying is safe at any point before you use it, you’ll have a much more reliable way than the expiration date,” says lead author Hanie Yousefi, a graduate student and research assistant in McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering.
If a pathogen is present in the food or drink inside the package it would trigger a signal in the packaging that could be read by a smartphone or other simple device. The test itself does not affect the contents of the package.
According to the World Health Organization, foodborne pathogens result in approximately 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths per year. About 30 per cent of those cases involve children five years old and younger.
The researchers have dubbed this new material “Sentinel Wrap” in tribute to the McMaster-based Sentinel Bioactive Paper Network – an interdisciplinary research network that worked on paper-based detection systems, and ultimately gave rise to this new food-testing technology.
Mass producing such a patch would be fairly cheap and simple, the researchers say, as the DNA molecules that detect food pathogens can be printed onto the test material.
“A food manufacturer could easily incorporate this into its production process,” says Tohid Didar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and member of the McMaster Institute for Infectious Disease Research.
However, getting this technology to market would require a commercial partner and regulatory approvals. This technology could open the doors for use in other applications, such as bandages detecting wound infection and wrapping surgical instruments to ensure sterility.