In the olden days – that Time of Yore to which we routinely look for reassurance that things in the past were indeed better – it was relatively easy to judge whether food was bad or not. Was the piece of meat crawling with maggots? Nope? OK, then it’s what’s for dinner. That apple with the skin as liver-spotted and wrinkly as your grandmother’s elbow? Better leave that tasty little morsel right where it fell. And if a visual appreciation of the potential lunch item was insufficient, the much-maligned sniff test, while lacking a certain scientific rigor, was likely to do the trick. Putrid food does exhibit a characteristic odor, after all. But in these days of ultra-processed, cellophane-wrapped, vacuum-sealed meals and snacks, how on earth are we supposed to rely on our senses to detect spoilage or contamination? The short answer is that, in many cases, we simply cannot.
So it is with some measure of relief that we are able to fall back on technology to assist in what should really be a very simple matter: feeding ourselves. In today’s era of fast-paced, mass-manufactured food where, even in purely Marxist terms, we are increasingly alienated from the means of production, we really do need all of the help we can get. As we have recently seen in recalls involving romaine lettuce from a farm in Yuma, AZ, even the most benign-looking ingredient can bring with it the threat of potentially fatal food poisoning, and it’s certainly true to say that the time to press technology into our service has most definitely arrived.
With Internet of Things (IoT)-connected, ‘intelligent’ appliances such as stoves and refrigerators becoming ever more commonplace in our kitchens, technology offers so much more than an easier way to order groceries. In fact, it is a potent weapon in the fight against food borne contamination and nowhere is it more critical than on the front lines of the battle: the constant improvement and refinement of food safety. Moreover, as we move further into the process of fully integrating more of our appliances, services, and facilities with the cloud, the technology that enables this will only become more central to the monitoring of freshness, oxygen levels, pH, pathogen activity, leakage, or temperature.
But our IoT-enabled protection has recently found a lower-tech side-kick, and it’s one that might make all the difference. In an interesting move by the European Union, labeling on food packaging is set to change. According to a TOXDTECT report published by CORDIS, the Community Research and Development Information Service, a project of the European Commission, up to 40% of consumers are perplexed by package labeling.(1) With current systems described as ‘ambiguous,’ many consumers do not trust the package-specific ‘use by’ and ‘expiration’ dates, leading not only to the potential for food borne illness but also for gross product and associated emissions resource waste. And the focus of this discontent is yet again that perennial problem: meat. Why meat? For one thing, it ‘accounts for the 25% of total waste in the food industry,’ according to the report.(2) Plus, unlike vegetable matter, packages of spoiled steak or ground beef are not landfill items.
So, short of accepting the situation as it currently is or risking sickness from contamination by pathogens such as Salmonella with its excruciating headaches, Listeria which can bring in its wake convulsions, or E. coli with its spiking fever, what are the alternatives? If you are not yet ready to give up meat and adopt a plant-based diet – thereby avoiding the issue altogether – so-called ‘intelligent packaging’ just may be part of the solution. To illustrate our point, let’s look closely at an example in which manufacturers are moving from using ‘active packaging’ – wrapping that incorporates antimicrobials and oxygen scavengers – to intelligent packaging, with sensors that enable it to do so much more.(3) Let’s look, for instance, at a humble package of ground beef.
From the moment a cow is turned into ‘food,’ her flesh starts to decay. On a cellular level, old cells break down and are no longer replaced, while at the same time the protein matrix begins to deteriorate chemically. Bacteria that may have been living on her or which are introduced at slaughter or processing (let’s not forget that this is a violent and messy business) may well proliferate, rapidly reaching potentially unsafe levels. And specifically in the case of ground beef, any bacteria or fecal matter on the outside of the flesh is ground up and incorporated into the mix. Add to the equation the mold that may find an attractively moist home within that package of discounted 80% lean hamburger and now there are three ways in which contamination is a very real possibility. And lastly, there is the additional question of oxidative rancidity – where improper packing techniques result in the oxidation of an already decomposing product. Oxidation is, at least, somewhat visible to the consumer, with the meat looking discolored and smelling ‘off.’
So, during its all too brief shelf life, ground meat can play host to a multitude of bacteria and other microorganisms, which give off certain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that remain trapped within the package. And this is where intelligent packaging comes into play. Of the volatiles, three in particular show a high correlation to the growth of microorganisms and so are effective indicators of the measure to which decomposition – and therefore product wastage – has progressed. Noting the significance of these volatiles, a multi-national team composed of groups from the United Kingdom, Belgium, Romania, Portugal, Spain, and Austria worked together to create a ‘sensing platform.’ Adhering VOC-sensitive screen-printed electrodes to the meat tray within the package, researchers also produced conductive polymer-based inks to provide a clear ‘real time’ expiration date for the package. The film-like structure of the electrode panel has an outer barrier layer embedded with sensors and an inner, gas-permeable layer that allows the VOC concentrations to be recorded.
So far, so good. But this hardware also requires the use of pre-processing software with predictive algorithms that give an accurate analysis of the decomposition rate for a given package of meat. And this is where the solution is truly innovative: this technology should be able to update in real time. Where printed ‘best before’ or ‘expiration’ dates are by nature static even in the face of altered circumstances – an unplanned change in storage temperatures, for example – the TOXDTECT mix of a sensing platform blended with electrodes and seasoned with data mining algorithms offers the recipe for a fully updatable feast.
So how can this be used in a real world scenario? We’re glad you asked. Let’s suppose a refrigerated truck breaks down during transportation from packer to distributor, sitting on the shoulder of the freeway for a few hours broiling in the mid-summer heat. While the temperature within the unit will be maintained for a certain length of time, spoilage will inevitably occur given a sufficiently long delay in getting that semi back on the road. Where previously, the fresh meat products would then either need to be reduced for a very quick sale or considered spoiled, the TOXDTECT solution simply recalculates the new ‘expiration date’ and updates the package label accordingly.
Could it really be that simple? Perhaps. But in the event that you remain leery of manufacturers’ promises, the problem can also be tackled from multiple angles. To borrow from and slightly twist the old adage, until we can strike at the roots of the problem it might be wise to lop off multiple branches. One of these branches is packaging, but another may be the individual consumer’s personal responsibility for their own contamination detection. And in the age of the app-driven smartphone, this just became a possibility.
In navigating an allergy landscape when eating out, we’ve long known that apps like Spokin, BiteAppy, or FoodMaestro can help those with food-based challenges such as intolerance or allergy alerts. Furthermore, other apps such as NxtNutrio not only list allergens, chemicals, artificial sweeteners and additives in brand name foods but also offer suggestions for alternatives based on the user’s preferences or restrictions. But, useful as they are for informational purposes, this technology is enabled merely by the use of databases of known ingredients, combined as food products. For a specific demographic, they can assist in making better choices, but they fall sort of confirming whether an allergy-friendly food item is nonetheless laden with pathogens.
According to an article published last month in Medgadget, an online publication spotlighting technologies and advances in the medical field, engineers at Purdue University have created a system that harnesses phages – viruses that infect bacteria – to detect food-borne pathogens, potentially in real time.(4) Attaching a luminometer – a device that measures the intensity of light – to a smartphone, the researchers discovered that when they tested some specially treated water used to wash a food sample, the phages would emit light. This glow is detectable via the luminometer and analyzed by an app with can tell the user whether the bacteria present are Salmonella, Listeria, or E. coli. The initiative seems sufficiently promising to have spawned a spin-off, with Purdue professors Bruce Applegate and Khashayar Farrkhzad of the Food Science Department founding Phicrobe, a venture to enable faster, cheaper, and more efficient environmental and food testing. Phicrobe’s genetically modified bacteriophage glows when in contact with a specified pathogen and is targeted at food manufacturers wishing to enhance profitability by incorporating rapid and inexpensive detection into their SOPs and HACCPs. As Applegate and Farrkhzad state their goal is the provision of ‘rapid, simple and inexpensive detection [to] enable food manufacturers to produce safe food, and comply with government regulations while maintaining a profitable food chain [… and] Reduce testing time [… for] a faster response to any contamination, ultimately reducing costs.’ And given that the use of Phicrobe’s phage detection system requires few extra components and piggybacks efficiently on current approved test procedures, it seems to be an efficient addition to the stable of food safety monitoring protocols.
So where does that leave the consumer, especially those of us who favor clean-eating and minimal processing, increasingly demand fresh food over frozen, fewer preservatives and chemical additives, and are leery of techniques such as irradiation. Ultimately, even with enhanced testing techniques coming online such as the use of phages, the consumer is still in the position of having to trust that producers, distributors, and retailers are operating with safety as a priority. And unfortunately, that is not necessarily universally true. So is there anything else the average consumer can do to protect themselves?
Well, it seems that those who don’t mind playing a food-based variation on Russian roulette with their health are in luck. Earlier this month, Chinese news outlet XinhuaNet reported that scientists based at China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation based in Beijing have completed tests on a hand-held device intended for use by home consumers. Conceived in missile technology, albeit exactly how remains a mystery, the ‘freshness sniffer’ can tell ‘whether the meat is fresh, or not so fresh and needs to be cooked well, or if it has already become spoiled,’ as Niu Ye, an engineer in charge of the product’s development is quoted as saying.(5) The sniffer is connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone running an app which, like the intelligent packaging we described above, determines not only the presence of VOCs but also of ammonia to determine the level of bacteriological compromise of the product.
Interestingly, although the intelligent packaging technology detailed above has focused upon beef products – presumably due to its pre-eminence in the standard American diet – Ye’s sniffer can detect volatiles and ammonia across the meat spectrum, from chicken to beef, mutton to fish. And this versatility is built into the product for good reason. In rural China, it is common for unlicensed vendors of meat to cater to those who lack regulated outlets for food. These vendors may not be as scrupulous as they could be, as Nui comments: ‘“[I]t’s not so hard for an immoral (sic) vendor to trick consumers’ noses and eyes.”’(6) So, to be truly useful, even at an accuracy rate of 80%-90% in the device’s first iteration, the sniffer must be able to analyze the potential pathogen risk across a broad spectrum of products.
That said, in terms of the broader food industry’s war on contamination, current innovations are certainly changing the landscape in favor of the consumer over the pathogen. When enhanced HACCP protocols, detailed SOPs, and adherence to cGMPs at the manufacturing level meet with intelligent packaging and consumer-led pathogen detection at the point of sale, all customers – whether or not we consume meat – benefit from enhanced food security. Pathogen contamination of our food supply is not only a disaster for the individual who becomes sick from Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli, or the myriad other illnesses associated with spoiled food, but also for the manufacturers and suppliers who, as A. Crispin Philpott notes in his analysis for Food Safety Magazine, ‘never recover financially from a foodborne illness outbreak associated with their product.’(7) Although generous profits have traditionally been associated with food manufacture, it only takes one major incident of a pathogen-driven outbreak to not only sicken customers but also to effectively kill a brand. Food borne illnesses could in fact represent the most significant challenge faced by manufacturers: as David Acheson, former associate commissioner at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes, ‘Thirty years ago if you had a little problem, you were not going to get discovered. Now the chances of getting caught are significant, and it can be the end of your company.’(8)
Indeed, in the food service industry reputation is everything, as anyone who remembers the most widespread Hepatitis A outbreak in U. S. history will recall. With 640 people affected of whom 4 died, contaminated green onions imported from Mexico became the downfall of an otherwise popular fast food chain, Chi-Chi’s. Becoming a headline news item in 2003, the chain suffered such severe consumer loss of confidence and financial backlash that it ultimately never recovered from the taint. Hopefully recent advances in safety have made repeats of this kind of avoidable incident less likely, but as consumers it does behoove us all to remember that food safety is not necessarily something we can always take completely for granted.
Do you always feel confident about the safety of your food? How do you actively avoid exposure to pathogen contamination? Tell us your thoughts – we’d love to hear from you.