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High-tech ‘best before’ label aims to ensure you never get food poisoning

The “best before” date on food is a quick and easy way to know at a glance whether the food is safe to eat or if it needs to be tossed in the trash. Researchers from Canada’s McMaster University may have come up with a superior high-tech update, however — in the form of a transparent patch, capable of actually sensing contamination in food. Printed using harmless molecules, the smart label could be incorporated directly into food packaging, and would monitor for pathogens including E. coli and salmonella.

“We developed a method to modify the surface of plastic packing material plastic so that it becomes fluorescent when a specific bacteria in the food comes in contact with that surface,” Tohid Didar, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “The key to this method was the creation of a smart ink that can be printed onto the internal parts of the packaging for food. The ink is essentially made of DNA, which has a sequence that provides it with the ability to recognize and signal the presence of a specific bacteria. The current application centers on packaged meat, but we can see the same ink being printed in containers containing liquids, such as milk or being printed in surfaces in hospitals to signal the presence of harmful bacteria.”

The World Health Organization claims that foodborne pathogens result in around 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths each year. Thirty percent of these cases involve kids under the age of five.

“Our goal is to develop new inks for different bacteria that are relevant for problems in multiple aspects of our daily lives that present a threat to human health,” Carlos Filipe, the other senior author on the study, said. These could potentially include water contamination or even creating special surfaces which are used to prepare foods in places like restaurants and hospitals. To get to this point, though, the researchers will need to secure a commercial partner and gain the necessary regulatory approvals.

“The potential is very vast,” Filipe continued. “Our focus is on research and on generating creative solutions. We believe that industrial partners will be the ones that truly have the capability to bring this technology to the market. Moving forward, this could be potentially applied in other healthcare settings such as wound dressing, biomaterials, and hospitals. We are excited just with our work having the potential to contribute towards protecting people’s health.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal ACS Nano.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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