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New sensors can detect bacterial contamination of packaged foods

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Grace Dille

Wondering if that chicken in the fridge is still good? Sensors in packaging could soon alert you of dangerous bacteria in various types of food products.

Chemical engineer, Carlos Filipe, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, has developed sensors to detect the presence of the potentially dangerous bacteria, E. coli, in packaged foods.

To do so, Filipe and his team coated a flexible film in molecules that glow in the presence of E. coli. The sensors glow around molecules that E. coli cells produce, so the material doesn’t have to touch contaminated food to know that the bacteria is there.

These transparent patch sensors, which are about the size of postage stamps, lit up brightly when they were tested on meat and apple juice hosting E. coli. However, when they were touching uncontaminated food samples they did not light up at all.

Filipe and the McMaster team hope to develop films that glow near other dangerous bacteria in the future. Tohid Didar, a mechanical-biomedical engineer on the team, said one of those bacteria might be Salmonella, which is one of the most common causes of food poisoning.

Foodborne illnesses such as E. coli and Salmonella affect 1 in 10 people every year and 420,000 die as a result, according to the World Health Organization. These sensors could help reduce that number and alert people before they consume contaminated foods.

“A food manufacturer could easily incorporate this into its production process,” Didar said. The engineers said mass producing the sensors would be fairly cheap, but the invention would need a commercial partner and regulatory approvals before it reaches the market.

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