Processors could gain from meat freshness indicator

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Escherichia coli

A sensor that changes colour to indicate meat spoilage could prevent serious illness and food waste, say the US scientists involved in the project.

Battelle scientists John R. Shaw and Donald Zehnder have been involved in a project for the past two years aimed at developing a ‘trap and detect’ tool for embedding in meat packaging to warn retailers and consumers of the presence of bacteria that cause food spoilage.

“We really wanted to come up with an idea whereby the consumer could look at the package and instantly know that the meat product was fresh or spoiled,”​ said John Shaw.

Zehnder told that, following preliminary lab work, the team is at the stage of designing a prototype sensor and they have recently filed for a patent in relation to their chemical detector.

According to the two chemists, the project was prompted by what they felt was a lack of safeguards in the food supply chain following the spinach linked E. coli​outbreak that killed three people and sickened more than 200 in September 2006.

They said their sensor could help reduce the risk of human illness or costly recalls.

Changing colour

Shaw said that their sensor, using technology based on colour metrics, changes from yellow to dark red when bacteria such as achromobacter​ and micrococcus ​have contaminated the meat.

He explained that the sensor is a synthetic molecule that binds with the material that the spoilage bacteria emit when they feed on the meat, and when the molecule and material bind the light they produce changes the colour of the sensor.

“The project is initially concentrating on the detection of spoilage bacteria as we have a good understanding of how they operate. However, we plan to fine tune the sensor so that it can also indicate the presence of pathogens such as listeria and E. coli 0157:H7,” ​said Shaw.

He said that the team is also evaluating how the sensor might be used in the detection of allergens in food products.

Best before

The chemists said that tests have demonstrated that the detector is 200 to 400 times more sensitive that the human nose and can help in reducing food wastage:

“As a result of its reliability for detecting spoilage bacteria, the sensor could eliminate the need for best before dates. Currently best before dates are set by manufacturers and are based on worst case assumptions. Most food is perfectly fine to eat days after its displayed best before date,” ​claims Shaw.

The two chemists would not be drawn on the composition of the detector, citing confidentiality, but did reveal that it was a non-toxic, non-caustic organic compound.

Commercial prospects

They said the sensor would not be undergoing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process for some time, but that they were hopeful the detector would be commercially available within a two-year timeframe.

“We have had a lot of interest already from meat producers and packaging suppliers in terms of setting up a partnership to get the sensor market ready​,” said Zehnder.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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