A lab under every chicken: Researchers create packaging tray that warns of food contamination

Two scientists in lab coats smiling at the camera in a lab. There is a tray with food in it on the counter.

Graduate students Shadman Khan, left, and Akansha Prasad are co-lead authors on a paper about a packaging tray that can signal when food is contaminate with salmonella or other dangerous pathogens. (Matt Clarke, McMaster University)

McMaster researchers have created a new packaging tray that can signal when salmonella or other dangerous pathogens are present in packages of raw or cooked food such as chicken.

The new technology will enable producers, retailers and consumers to tell in real time whether the contents of a sealed food package are contaminated without having to open it, preventing exposure to contamination while simplifying cumbersome and expensive lab-based detection processes.

The prototype tray, shaped like a shallow boat, is lined with a food-safe reagent that allows a built-in sensor to detect and signal the presence of salmonella. The technology can readily be adapted to test for other common food-borne contaminants, such as E. coli and listeria.

“This is something that can benefit everyone,” says researcher Akansha Prasad, the co-lead author of a paper that describes the invention, published in the journal Advanced Materials. “We’re hoping this technology will save lives, money and food waste.”

There is a lot at stake with food safety, says researcher Shadman Khan, co-lead author on the paper. “We wanted to develop a system that was reliable, quick, affordable and easy to use.”

The sloped sides of the tray direct juices to a sensor embedded in a window at the bottom. Users can scan the underside of the sealed package with a cellphone and know immediately whether the food is contaminated without additional lab work.

Having easy, instant access to such information would allow public health authorities, producers and retailers to trace and isolate contamination quickly, reducing potentially serious infections and cutting back significantly on food waste by identifying precisely which lots of food need to be recalled and destroyed, compared to broad recalls that end up wasting unspoiled foods.

Further, the researchers say, protecting consumers from contaminated foods will create significant health-care savings.

Globally, there are about 600 million cases of food-borne illness every year, largely attributed to the consumption of pathogen-contaminated food products.

The McMaster researchers and their colleagues have been working for several years on related technologies, all aimed at creating simple, inexpensive tools to prevent and detect food contamination.

Their work is part of McMaster’s Global Nexus School for Pandemic Prevention & Response.

circular headshot of Tohid Didar
Tohid Didar

Package-based sensors that measure other conditions such as humidity are already becoming common in Japan and elsewhere, says co-author Tohid Didar, an associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering who holds the Canada Research Chair in Nano-biomaterials.

The McMaster research team on the Lab-in-a-Package project — featuring 11 colleagues from the fields of biomedical, mechanical and chemical engineering, medicine and biochemistry — has worked to make the new contamination sensor as adaptable and economical as possible, knowing food producers are under pressure to keep costs low, he says.

circular headshot of yingfu li
Yingfu Li

“It’s really just a matter of time before technology like this becomes common all over the world,” Didar says.

“Now that we’ve shown that one kind of food package can reveal contamination without even being opened, we can adapt it to other forms of packaging for other types of foods.”

Didar and his colleagues Yingfu Li, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, and Carlos Filipe, McMaster’s Chair of Chemical Engineering, supervised the research.

“Being able to combine packaging and salmonella detection in one system is already very promising,” says Li.

circular headshot of Carlos Filipe
Carlos Filipe

“It also shows that we can add sensing probes for other food-borne pathogens to the same system so the package will check for all of them at once. That’s the next step for us, and we’re already working on it.”

The research has been supported by Toyota Tsusho Canada Inc., an indirect subsidiary of Toyota Tsusho Corporation in Japan.

Related Stories