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New product that detects food contamination can end the need for expiry dates

Researchers Hanie Yousefi and Thid Didar examine a transparent patch, which can be used in packaging to detect pathogens on food. Credit: McMaster University
The transparent patch developed by researchers at McMaster University can be put on packaging to signal if food is contaminated
by TR Pakistan

Researchers at McMaster University in Canada have developed a transparent patch that can detect contamination of meat and other commonly used food products.

“The new technology has the potential to replace the traditional ‘best before’ date on food and drinks alike with a definitive indication that it’s time to chuck that roast or pour out that milk,” says a statement issued by the university.

The product is an outcome of cross-campus collaborative work involving mechanical and chemical engineers and biochemists. Printed with harmless molecules, the patch can be incorporated directly into food packaging, where it can monitor the contents for harmful pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella.

“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,” Hanie Yousefi, a graduate research assistant in McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering, has been quoted as saying in the statement.

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The statement says that if a pathogen is present in food or drink inside the package, the patch will trigger a signal that can be read by a smartphone. The test itself does not affect the contents of the package, it adds.

According to the World Health Organization, foodborne pathogens result in approximately 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths per year. About 30 percent of those cases involve children five years old and younger.

The researchers have named the new material ‘Sentinel Wrap’ in tribute to the McMaster-based Sentinel Bioactive Paper Network, an interdisciplinary research network that has worked on paper-based detection systems. That network’s research led to the new food-testing technology.

The signaling technology for the food test has been developed in the McMaster labs of biochemist Yingfu Li.

“He created the key, and we have built a lock and a door to go with it,” says Carlos Filipe, the chair of McMaster’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

Is that meat still good? Are you sure? McMaster researchers have developed a test to bring certainty to the delicate but critical question of whether meat and other foods are safe to eat or need to be thrown out. Credit: McMaster University

Mass producing such a patch will 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 can 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.

The researchers point out that the technology can also be used in other applications, such as bandages to indicate if wounds are infected, or for wrapping surgical instruments to assure they are sterile.

The next step for the researchers will be to look out for commercial partners and to seek regulatory approvals so that the product can be marketed.

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