No one is absolutely sure how many people are affected by food poisoning each year. But it is a global problem and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate it affects tens of millions of people each year.
Salmonella is one of the most common and widely distributed foodborne diseases. Over 2,500 different strains have been identified to date. WHO estimates that Salmonella alone results in more than a hundred thousand deaths each year.
In the UK, the Food Standards Agency indicate all types of food poisoning affect over a million people annually, including 20,000 hospitalisations and 500 deaths. The cost to the UK economy is £1.5 billion.
In recent years, food packaging developments have contributed to reducing the threat of food poisoning, such as packaging that can detect temperature change. But temperature is only a potential indicator of food spoilage.
However, there are some interesting developments by chemical engineers in America, which could help identify food contamination throughout the food chain.
Anastasia Elias and Dominic Sauvageau, professors in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta, are developing smart materials to detect harmful microbes.
The team at Alberta have developed and combined three technologies: the stimuli-responsive polymer that makes up the smart material, the biological detection system, and food microbiology.
The new smart materials are incorporated into food packaging and will have the ability to improve safety at every stage of food processing, from the packaging facility, to transport to stores, to consumers’ refrigerators.
One of the challenges faced by the researchers has been the strict rules required by food regulators. The smart packaging needs to be in contact with the food to detect the pathogens and has required the use of non-harmful chemicals and materials.
However, they have succeeded and the result is a packaging material that can change colour in the presence of disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella or listeria, and in response to temperature changes. The material responds by changing from blue to white, or from clear to cloudy.
In contrast to the current ‘swab-test’ contaimination test, there is no delay in getting quick results and the need for specialised personnel and equipment. The smart materials will help food suppliers, distributors, retailers and consumers to instantly see if a product has been contaminated just by looking at the colour of the packaging.
As with many research projects commercialisation is one of the next big hurdles. However, the multi-disciplinary team at Alberta are harnessing technology which has the potential to prevent and quickly identify food contamination which will save money and bring major health benefits in the future.