Food safety goes back to its roots

A European-funded project is developing hand-held devices to bring food testing from the laboratory to the farm, slaughterhouse and processing plant.

The GoodFood project, funded by the European Commission’s Information Society Technologies (IST) research initiative is using micro and nanotechnology to develop portable appliances to detect toxins, pathogens and chemicals in foodstuffs on the spot. Food samples would no longer have to be sent to a laboratory for tests but could be analysed for safety where the food is produced, packaged or sold.

“The aim is to achieve full safety and quality assurance along the complete food chain,” said Carles Cané, the coordinator of the IST programme-funded project at the National Microelectronics Centre in Spain.

GoodFood are using similar sensors to those developed for the medical field in an innovative way to screen for virtually any pathogen or toxin in any produce, although the project partners are focusing their research on quality and safety analysis for dairy goods, fruit and wine.

For the dairy sector they are developing a reusable device based on a fluorescent optical biosensor that measures the reaction of a probe coated with antibodies when it comes into contact with antibiotics present in milk or other dairy products. Cumulative exposure to antibiotics could be harmful to babies and contribute to the build-up of resistance.

The project is also developing DNA biochips to detect pathogens in a variety of dairy and other foodstuffs. Other appliances based on an immunodiagnostic microarray will be developed to identify pesticides on fruit and vegetables.

A different set of gauges is being designed to improve the quality of fruit. They measure the quantity of oxygen and ethylene, a gas produced by fruit as it ripens, in fridges where unripe fruit is stored for months until it is ready to go on sale to check how well it is being maintained.

Other equipment which detects temperature, humidity, sunlight, soil conditions and other factors could be used on the farm to determine optimum conditions for growing and pinpoint the ideal time for harvesting.

The systems the project has developed to date are being tested over the course of this year at a vineyard near Florence.

The project’s research is expected to lead to commercial systems, initially for testing and monitoring more expensive foodstuffs such as wine and baby food and eventually for other produce.