Spring 2010

Cover Story

When Kathy Glass spends the weekend at her in-laws’ house, she usually finds herself cranking down the temperature on their refrigerator.

“When I arrive, it’s usually at 47 or 48 degrees Fahrenheit,” well above the recommended 40-degree level, says Glass, associate director of the UW-Madison Food Research Institute. “If you keep food in there for a long time at that temperature, it’s a bad thing.”

A bad thing, but an all-too-common one. Each year, an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness are reported in the United States, leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. And while the sources of food contamination range from on-farm outbreaks to processing mistakes to improper storage at home, nearly every foodborne illness could be prevented if contamination were detected quickly enough to keep tainted food off the shelf. But despite a national network of food inspectors, tough industry standards and Glass’ own personal refrigerator checks, some problems sneak through.

The latest thrust in food-safety research, however, is to deploy technology as an unblinking watchdog for potential food problems. For example, scientists have developed sensors that can measure the amount of time foods spend above their ideal storage temperature, alerting consumers to potential spoilage. The sensors, which change color when a food is likely unsafe, are already used by wholesalers and may soon be affordable enough to affix to the labels of consumer goods. If that happens, Glass says the sensors would not only keep consumers safe but help educate them about proper food storage and encourage better habits.

At the same time, FRI researchers are experimenting with higher-end sensors that use nanotechnology to rapidly detect toxins and pathogens such as E. coli or Salmonella in the production process. With current testing methods, it can take days to confirm the presence of these potentially life-threatening microbes in foods such as ground beef, making it difficult to sniff out tainted foods before they leave the facility.

“It would be better to have something more like a (biosensor) dipstick, where you can find out something within a fairly short period of time—real time, even,” says Glass, “so that when there’s a contamination in the meat there would be this little glowing light that says, ‘Divert. Get this out of the stream.’”

Glass cautions that these nanobiosensors are “still very pie-in-the-sky at this point,” but they do have the potential to revolutionize the food-inspection process, bringing it one step closer to where society wants it to be: failsafe.

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