Innovative nanotechnology speeds detection of food contamination

- Edmonton, Alberta

Rapidly advancing nanotechnology introduces new solutions to the food sector that assess safety.

About 1 in 8 people in Canada is likely to be affected by foodborne illnesses every year. With food contamination having such a huge impact on health, the economy and the environment, the race is on to find faster ways of detecting microbial pathogens that not only start the spoiling process, but also can travel from the field through production and processing to consumers' plates. For example, fruits and vegetables could be tainted by irrigation water, organic fertilizer or human handling. Ready-to-eat deli meats and sausages can be contaminated during food processing.

Food bacterial pathogen identification/isolation using existing detection methods can take up to 3 days to confirm the presence of an infectious agent. "If we could detect pathogens quicker, this could allow the food to get out to the retailers quicker too," says Dr. Ken Bosnick, Team Lead, Nanomaterial Depositions and Characterizations, National Research Council of Canada (NRC). "Using state-of-the-art nanomaterials and sensing devices, we aim to reduce the pathogen detection time to 8 hours."

Supporting the food sector to ensure food safety

The NRC and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) have initiated a close collaboration to create an alternative to conventional analytical methods. According to Dr. Louise Deschênes, AAFC Research Scientist, the new approach uses a biosensor detection platform that combines sensitivity, specificity, speed, cost-effectiveness and operational simplicity.

The platform is expected to speed up detection of pathogens such as Listeria and Hepatitis A. To rapidly detect very low numbers of pathogens, it uses innovative nanomaterials that are ideal for many sensing applications because they have extremely high surface-to-volume ratios. For instance, nearly invisible nanosensors can monitor tonnes of food for quality and freshness during processing and storage and at retail. Fast point-of-control methodologies to uncover pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses would definitely improve food safety.

Dr. Deschênes explains that the 2 organizations bring unique complementary skills and knowledge to the table. "The multidisciplinary team has exceptional synergy in complex microbiology issues, interfacial chemistry, nanotechnology, materials science and knowledge of food matrices," she says. "This will lead to truly innovative, nanotech-enabled tools for the food industry that will benefit everyone in the supply chain." This includes adapting pathogen-sensing technology used to detect warfare agents and pathogenic security threats to food detection.

Reaping results

Dr. Deschênes points out that a fast risk-detection platform adapted to food processing will also improve the industry's competitiveness and economic wealth. She foresees new lines of development emerging from this project that include advanced nanomaterials and innovative technologies that food processors can use to increase food safety.

"The results will contribute to reducing foodborne outbreaks and pushing Canada ahead as a leader in food safety," adds Dr. Deschênes. "This is a highly valuable in terms of public health issues and export market considerations."

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