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Explore this issueOctober/November 2014
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Are detection methods getting “smarter?” It certainly sounds that way.
For example, University of Alberta professors Anastasia Elias and Dominic Sauvageau and their research team in Canada are developing “smart labels” to detect harmful microbes that cause foodborne illnesses before products reach consumers.
While labels have already been developed to detect temperature change, temperature is only an indirect indicator of food spoilage. The material used to make the smart labels will be able to directly indicate the presence of bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella, or Listeria, by changing color.
Supported by the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency, the project involves developing and combining three technologies: the stimuli-responsive polymer from which the smart material is made, the biological detection system, and food microbiology.
“With the smart materials, food suppliers and even consumers will instantly be able to see if a product has been contaminated just by looking at the color of the packaging,” Sauvageau explains. The smart materials could also help pinpoint where and when the problem occurred, so action can be taken immediately to fix the problem. The research team is now two years into this three-year project, but still has work to do before commercial production.
In addition, there are smart utensils under development in China. This past summer, hundreds of eateries in Taiwan were found selling dishes made with cheaper cooking oil from sewers and garbage disposals. Naturally, this has the public clamoring for an easy solution to ensure that the oil used to prepare their food isn’t adulterated with gutter oil. Chinese search engine company Baidu, the nation’s equivalent to Google, says it has an answer: “smart chopsticks.”
Baidu recently unveiled its prototype, named Kuaisou, which can allegedly identify the quality of cooking oil. The chopsticks are fitted with sensors that connect to a smartphone app to give users analyzed readings. When chopsticks are dipped into edible oil, an “excellent” reading is given. When dipped into recycled cooking oil, a “bad” reading appears—indicating the used oil is not safe.
As our food supply gets more complicated, the detection of contamination and adulteration cannot depend on traditional safety strategies, so smart detection methods like the above are promising and are hopefully precursors to more innovative processes.
“Technology is always evolving,” adds Elias. “So there is room for constant improvement and alternative applications.”