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Stale or Safe? Smart Patch Detects Food Gone Bad

Cartoon of a woman checking the "safe or Stale" smart patch on a package of meat

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed food poisoning is so common, that as many as 48 million people get sick. About 128,000 people who got sick from a foodborne illness end up in the hospital, with as many as 3,000 dying from food poisoning.

This seemingly irrelevant illness actually creates a negative impact to the lives of countless people. Researchers have found at least 250 foodborne diseases, a majority of which are caused by bacteria, parasites, and viruses. As the primary sources of sustenance, food should always be safe – so scientists at the McMaster University in Canada have created the bold idea of a nontoxic patch that helps people easily see if their food has gone bad.

Good Food Gone Bad

The group of scientists from McMaster published their study in the journal ACS Nano, elaborating on the patch’s biosensing technology. Their smart patch is a harmless see-through material that can be used in food packaging. The patch can detect a number of harmful bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella.

The patch’s technology seems simple enough – a smartphone or device could pick up the signal to alert the persons if the food in the packaging is still safe or should no longer be consumed. In the scientists’ tests, the bio patch was able to detect even very low concentrations of E. coli in meat and apple juice. This patch could protect unsuspecting victims from food poisoning.

The scientists suggest the material is a great solution for real-time pathogen monitoring. Because the material is stable for “at least half the shelf life of perishable packaged food products” (14 days), the team is hoping it could soon be a packaging standard that replaces the traditional “best before” stamps and labels on today’s available food and drinks. Although these estimated dates are usually accurate, many experience food and drinks that have gone past their actual prime days before the stamped dates.

“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,” explained Hanie Yousefi, one of the study’s authors and a research assistant in the faculty of engineering at McMaster University.

Easily Integrate-able, Solves Many Problems

Tohid F. Didar, one of the study authors and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at McMaster, explained how the revolutionary smart patch is easy to integrate. He said the DNA molecules used to detect bacteria is easily printed onto film; as such, mass production of the patch is relatively easy.

“A food manufacturer could easily incorporate this into its production process,” said Professor Didar, affirming it is “fairly cheap and simple.” This easy integration, as well as the fact it can be a definitive indicator of food spoilage, may help the perennial global food waste problem.

In a 2016 survey by Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, National Consumers League, and Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, it was revealed that confusion about “best before” date labels contribute to household food waste.

Titled “Consumer Perception of Date Labels: National Survey,” this dives into a widespread issue showing that food waste accounts for about two-thirds of the $218 billion annual cost of growing, transporting, processing, and disposing a whopping 40% of American food supply – or the food that goes unconsumed.

Other possible uses for this groundbreaking smart patch may include medical purposes: bandages which show if wounds are infected, or even wrappers for surgical instruments to indicate if they are still sterile. Brilliant minds may think of other possible uses for the patch that could create bold impacts in  industries beyond food and medicine.

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