Smart labels detect contaminated meat before it hits shelves

July 30, 2014 by Nicole Basaraba

Have you ever worried about getting salmonella or E. coli poisoning from meat? Researchers at the University of Alberta are working on a new way to spot spoiled meat before it hits grocery-store shelves.

Anastasia Elias and Dominic Sauvageau, professors in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, are developing to detect harmful microbes that cause food-borne illnesses before products reach consumers.

"Agriculture and food production is the second-largest industrial sector in Alberta, and our smart materials will increase and save time and money when testing for spoilage," Elias said.

The new smart materials, which will be incorporated into , will help improve safety at every stage of food processing, from the packaging facility, to transport to stores, to consumers' refrigerators where contaminants can affect products such as meat.

"The current swab-test method used for food contamination requires specialized personnel and equipment, and takes a long time to get the results," Sauvageau explained. "With the smart materials, food suppliers and even consumers will instantly be able to see if a product has been contaminated just by looking at the colour of the packaging."

The project involves developing and combining three technologies: the stimuli-responsive polymer that makes up the smart material, the biological detection system, and food microbiology. The research team has been working for the past two years on these technologies. They have been programming the material to 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 Europe there are labels that detect temperature change, but temperature is only an indirect indicator of . The key difference with our smart materials is that they will be able to directly indicate the presence of pathogens and help show exactly where it occurred in the supply chain," Elias explained.

In many cases of bacterial outbreak, it takes time to investigate where the problem arose. Smart materials could help pinpoint where and when the problem occurred, so action could be taken immediately to remedy the problem.

"A lot of the time, there is a reaction only after an outbreak occurs, and this puts the public in some danger. These smart materials add another layer of safety because they could detect a problem before the product reaches the consumer," Sauvageau said.

The research team is supported by funding from the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency. Elias and Sauvageau are assisted by Preetam Anbukarasu, a PhD student in ; Diana Martinez, who has a biomedical engineering background and is pursuing a master's in chemical engineering; Zachary Storms, a post-doctoral fellow with a background in biochemical engineering; and ChanChan Wang, a post-doctoral fellow with a degree in chemical engineering and expertise in polymer characterization and modification.

"The students and post-doctoral fellows all have their own specialization, but they all overlap in this project so it truly is an interdisciplinary team," Sauvageau said. "Our meetings are particularly interesting because everyone brings such different perspectives and ideas about food packaging and safety to the table."

The next step for the research team is integrating the three technologies and developing a smart-label design that is suitable and feasible for industry implementation.

"One of the challenges, like with any research project, is that the smart materials need to be simple and cheap in order to be commercialized," Sauvageau said.

The team is working with industry to determine how to design the materials for ease of use while maintaining visual appeal to consumers. For example, consumers usually prefer clear packaging so they can see the product. The researchers have also been careful to use non-harmful chemicals and materials because the smart material needs to be in contact with the food to detect pathogens. This will help speed the process of having their new material approved for food packaging. The team is now awaiting patent approval for their technology and acceptance of their report in a scientific journal.

"Technology is always evolving, so there is room for constant improvement and alternative applications," Elias said. "These smart labels do have the potential to become an industry standard for food safety."

Explore further: Antimicrobial edible films inhibit pathogens in meat

Related Stories

Antimicrobial edible films inhibit pathogens in meat

May 1, 2014

Antimicrobial agents incorporated into edible films applied to foods to seal in flavor, freshness and color can improve the microbiological safety of meats, according to researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural ...

New methods of detecting Salmonella in pork meat processing

July 24, 2014

Infections caused by foodborne microorganisms are an increasing public health burden. In a PhD project at the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, new methods of characterising and dectecting foodborne ...

California chicken linked to salmonella recalled

July 4, 2014

A California chicken producer has issued its first recall since being linked to an outbreak of an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella that has been making people sick for more than a year, company and federal food officials ...

Smart paint signals when equipment is too hot to handle

July 4, 2014

( —NJIT researchers have developed a paint for use in coatings and packaging that changes color when exposed to high temperatures, delivering a visual warning to people handling material or equipment with the potential ...

Recommended for you

Scientific advances can make it easier to recycle plastics

November 17, 2017

Most of the 150 million tons of plastics produced around the world every year end up in landfills, the oceans and elsewhere. Less than 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the United States, rising to about 30 percent in ...

The spliceosome—now available in high definition

November 17, 2017

UCLA researchers have solved the high-resolution structure of a massive cellular machine, the spliceosome, filling the last major gap in our understanding of the RNA splicing process that was previously unclear.

Ionic 'solar cell' could provide on-demand water desalination

November 15, 2017

Modern solar cells, which use energy from light to generate electrons and holes that are then transported out of semiconducting materials and into external circuits for human use, have existed in one form or another for over ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.