The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that more than 48 million Americans get sick each year from foodborne illnesses. The social and economic impact of foodborne illnesses, such as salmonellosis, is significant. Most foodborne diseases outbreaks can be prevented if the contaminating bacteria are detected before food products are released to market.
This inspired a team of professors to invent a highly sensitive device that can simultaneously detect multiple types of bad bacteria in a few hours. The biosensor provides a rapid way for producers to know if this invisible danger is present in both raw and ready-to-eat food before it reaches the store.
This novel design helps to speed up the detection process and keep the testing cost low.
The device came from a collaboration of Mahmoud Almasri, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Missouri; Shuping Zhang, professor and director of the MU Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory; and Majed Dweik, associate professor at Lincoln University.
Together, the three have been developing portable bacteria sensors for few years and have published their findings in journals such as Scientific Reports, Biosensors & Bioelectronics and Electrophoresis.
Almasri says the biosensor was designed to be easy to use for anyone working in the production space of the commercial food industry.
“We developed an easy-to-use and low-cost biosensor for simultaneous detection of multiple potentially harmful bacteria in ready to eat poultry and raw poultry products within a typical production plant shift, and within one hour, respectively,” he says. “This includes several types of Salmonella and E. coli. We are also in the process of testing for Listeria and Campylobacter.”
He explains the biosensor uses a specific fluid that is mixed with the food to detect the presence of bacteria, such as Salmonella, along a food production line in both raw and ready-to-eat food. That way, producers can know within a few hours—typically the length of a worker’s shift—if their products are safe to send out for sale to consumers.
“In raw poultry, our device can be used for process control in the food production line at multiple locations to tell the concentration in raw poultry and obtain results within one hour instead of waiting a day or two,” Almasri says. “For ready-to-eat poultry, our device can be used to test the final product, and do complete testing within a typical production plant shift.”
Current tests used to determine positive cases of Salmonella such as culturing samples and extracting DNA to detect pathogens are accurate but may take anywhere from one to five days to produce results.
Right now, the device is only designed for the food production industry.
“Food producers can incorporate our device along their food production line to rapidly test for any dangerous bacteria,” Almasri says. “Our plan is to commercialize this highly sensitive, portable, low-cost, easy-to-use system. We believe it has a substantial and immediate positive impact on the safety of ready-to-eat poultry products, as well as the operating efficiency of the raw poultry industry.”
The system can be designed to perform up to 24 tests at once using 24 biosensors fabricated on the same chip, allowing it to satisfy even large poultry processing plants.
Although the biosensor has only been tested on poultry products, with successful results published in PLOS ONE, as well as lettuce contaminated with foodborne pathogens and tap water contaminated with waterborne pathogens and algae toxins so far, Almasri says the device can be used to test other food products such as beef and dairy products.
Manpreet Singh, PhD, professor in the Department of Poultry Science at the University of Georgia, says that if this rapid detection method is valid, it will definitely be beneficial for the food industry.
“One of the major hurdles with rapid detection technologies is the limited use in commercial food samples where there are other background bacteria that interfere with target organisms,” he says. “The next step is to look at food samples in commercial settings, which speaks to the limitation of the rapid detection technology.”
Such sensors are good, he notes, because they will be helpful for producers and processors to detect contamination in a timely manner, preventing such products from entering commerce.
“In line with most food safety programs, this could be a tool that can be successful in preventing food contamination,” Singh says.