Recalls over Escherichia coli concerns dominate the current food safety headlines, with two significant, recent occurrences.  In late May, Smucker Foods of Canada was forced to recall three brands of flour in the U.S. due to possible E. coli contamination, while wholesale restaurant food supplier Creation Gardens began recalling over 22,000 pounds of beef in early June. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creation Gardens is recalling raw ground beef and beef primal cut products, including beef patties, short ribs and sirloin. The products were produced between June 1 and June 2, 2017, and shipped to locations in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

All told, E. coli O157 is believed to be the root of approximately 73,000 illnesses and 60 deaths every year in the U.S.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believe they may have discovered the next entry into the litany of tests and detection systems for food processors to implement to fight off E. coli

The new test—using a liquid that binds to bacterial proteins—can be detected by either the naked eye or a smartphone, offering a much faster and cheaper alternative to existing food safety tests. The scientists developed a way to easily make complex droplets of two equally sized hemispheres, one made of a fluorocarbon and one made of a hydrocarbon. The researchers decided to explore using these droplets as sensors because of their unique optical properties. In their natural state, the liquid is transparent. When applied to the proteins found in E. coli, however, the droplets clump and become opaque.

Current food safety testing often involves placing food samples in a culture dish to see if harmful bacterial colonies form, but that process takes two to three days. Faster tests are available but are expensive and involve special instruments. With this new test, the food samples are placed atop a QR code that can be scanned with a smartphone. When E. coli are present, the droplets clump together and the QR code can’t be read.

The MIT team hopes to adapt its new technology into arrays of small wells, each containing droplets customized to detect a different pathogen and linked to a different QR code. This could enable rapid, inexpensive detection of pathogens on the factory floor, using only a smartphone.

While the researchers at MIT hope to launch a company to commercialize the technology within the next year and a half, this is just the latest example of the many different angles the industry is using to tackle food safety.

From sanitary design to packaging and processing systems involving metal and/or X-ray detection, technologies are emerging every year to ensure the safety of the global food supply chain. It is thus incumbent on everyone in the food industry to take advantage of opportunities to learn about such advances, including scientific meetings, trade shows and the vast literature on these developments.

Sean Riley is senior director of media and industry communications at PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. PMMI is also the owner and producer of the PACK EXPO portfolio of trade shows, which offers a look at breakthrough technologies, innovative applications and proven techniques from industry experts.