Microfluidics and food safety

Cantaloupes are especially susceptible to contamination since microbes find it easy to live on their textured rinds. (Image credit: Brandon Quester/News21)

Could microfluidic technology help deliver safer food? While most lab-on-a-chip devices are aimed at the medical and life science research markets, a growing number of researchers and companies are investigating applications related to food and agriculture. The recent E. colioutbreak in Germany showed how devastating foodborne illness can be, in terms of human life, illness and economic impact.

There are many startups currently working on rapid, lab-on-a-chip tests for detecting pathogens in the clinic, and some of these are also investigating the food safety market. A few areas I’d like to hear more about:

  • Can microscale diagnostics adequately test large volumes of food? How useful is spot-checking a truckload of sprouts?

  • One public health researcher described the challenges of testing milk for pathogens: “…the problem of testing to ensure safety is complicated by several factors: (1) milk contamination occurs sporadically, (2) contamination may not be evenly distributed in a product, (3) extremely small amounts are infectious, and (4) extremely small numbers (below the detectable limit) of organisms present in the product may proliferate to levels that reach unacceptable risks after testing.”

  • While rapid spot-checking for pathogens is probably better than nothing, is it good enough to have an impact?

  • How would sample preparation be done for a variety of different food types/textures?

  • Are there certain types of foods (e.g., fruits or meats) where the sample must be destroyed to be tested, vs. liquid foods (e.g., milk) which could be tested without destroying the product? Or can you adequately test a solid food without destroying the sample?

  • Could improved pathogen testing help decrease use of antibiotics in farm animals?

  • The current widespread use of antibiotics in farm animals endangers human life by encouraging the development of resistant microorganism strains. Could better diagnostics coupled with better conditions for livestock reduce the industry’s heavy reliance on antibiotics?

What do you think about the potential impact of microfluidic technology in the food industry?

For more:

  • See the March 2011 Lab on a Chip review article by Suresh Neethirajan and colleagues, who reviewed recent microfluidic applications in food safety, food processing, animal science, plant science and other areas.

  • If you’d like to learn more about food safety issues, check out the Food Safety News website.

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