Scientists develop handheld device to detect bacteria on food

Michigan residents want access to healthy, safe, affordable food. Each year, one in six Americans — 48 million people — gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Imagine if you could detect harmful bacteria on your food. Futuristic? Yes, and the future is close at hand.Food Safety News says, “This wireless device could detect the presence of Salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens and give an alarm in response.”

Auburn University reports that doctoral students at the Center for Detection and Food Safety helped develop the device. “What we want to do is very fast detection and that anyone can do it,” said Yating Chai, a doctoral student in materials engineering at Auburn University’s Center for Detection and Food Safety who helped develop the device. She said that current bacteriological testing can take several hours, needs a lot of high-technology expertise and consumes a lot of energy. “In the future, we want it so anyone can do the test in their kitchen,” Yating said. “We want to simplify the entire process so we can directly test the food.”

Yating and her colleagues have developed a two part device that consists of a very small sensor which is placed directly on the food surface and then a detector to do the scanning. As described in a Scientific American podcast, “the sensor that touches the food has a sliver of metallic glass coated with phage E2, a virus that, for example, will only stick to salmonella typhimurium bacteria.” The scientists recently published results from their five year study of the device in the Journal of Applied Physics. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has funded this work and anticipates everyday applications.

Protecting the food we eat and providing a means to control and eliminating bacteria can provide us with food that is safe for all. Scientist developing devices to detect these bacteria estimate that it may soon be manufactured and available for home use.

In your home you can minimize the spread of bacteria which could result in foodborne illnesses. Michigan State University Extension recommends these food safety practices:

  • Clean: Wash hands with soap and warm water before and after handling raw food. Clean all surfaces and utensils with soap and hot water. Wash all produce under running water before eating, cutting or cooking.
  • Separate: Use separate plates and utensils to avoid cross-contamination between raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs and foods that are ready to eat (like already cooked foods or raw vegetables).
  • Cook: Cook foods to the safe temperature by using a food thermometer
  • Chill: Chill foods promptly if not consuming immediately after cooking

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