Researchers in Canada have developed a test that can reveal bacterial contamination of dairy products long before they are consumed.
The method, developed by researchers at McMaster University with support from Toyota Tsusho Canada, will allow producers, packers and retailers to detect bacterial contamination in dairy products simply by reading a signal from a test printed on inside each container.
According to the research team, the technology can be adapted to detect the most common foodborne pathogens and should also be effective for use with other foods and beverages.
Once it becomes widely available, the McMaster and Toyota Tsusho hope it will make the food supply safer and significantly reduce food waste.
The test in its current form works by isolating even traces of infectious bacteria in dairy products – a technical challenge that until now has been difficult to manage.
“Milk is a very rich environment whose complex biology can mask the presence of pathogens, making them difficult to detect,” said Tohid Didar, Research Chair at the McMaster School of Biomedical Engineering. “In terms of technical challenge, it’s similar to blood.”
The test works by imprinting a tasteless, food-safe patch on the inside surface of a container that repels all but target organisms, using a biosensor that triggers a change in the patch when such organisms are detected.
“We chose milk as a demonstration of the technology because it’s so difficult.” said Carlos Filipe, McMaster Chair of Chemical Engineering. “Knowing that the technology works in such a complex solution means it can work with other forms of packaged food products, such as canned soup or tuna.”
Reducing illness and food waste aligns well with Toyota Tsusho Canada’s values, said Toyota Tsusho Vice President Grant Town. “Whenever we work to generate new business, it must benefit society. Reducing food waste will benefit everyone, and Toyota Tsusho Canada sees this as a great opportunity.
The research is part of an ongoing and broader effort to establish McMaster as a center for the development of real-time sensors, anti-pathogen materials and other products that improve food safety.
The authors of the new research spiked whole milk with E. coli to prove that the technology can detect even traces of the bacteria.
Having proven its effectiveness, the researchers said the detection technology can be easily applied to other foodborne pathogens, such as listeria and clostridium. Yingfu Li, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, had previously identified various biosensors capable of detecting specific pathogens.
A test patch covering multiple pathogens could be printed or otherwise incorporated into many forms of packaging, including cartons, plastic jars, milk bags and bottles so that it could be read, visually or with a scanner, without opening the packaging.
The short-term goal is to make the technology available to manufacturers, distributors and retailers, the team said. But if widely adopted, consumers could one day use handheld scanners to check foods just before consumption.
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