No Buy Zone — Color-changing Food Labels Target Pathogens

No Buy Zone — Color-changing Food Labels Target PathogensDoes your food contain E. coli, Listeria or Salmonella? If you live in the United States or Canada, probably not, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six Americans still contract Salmonella each year, resulting in 3000 deaths annually.

What’s more, the total cost of foodborne pathogens in the United States could top $77 billion per year. Now, a team of Canadian researchers are developing new packaging labels that change color when pathogens are present, creating an obvious way to side-step bad food. Is this the future of pathogen control?

Speed Matters

The research from University of Alberta scientists isn’t the first effort at detecting E. coli and other pathogens in food before it leaves production facilities, but may offer the secret ingredient: speed. Consider the work of Sunny Shah and his team from the University of Notre Dame. As reported by the National Science Foundation, Shah’s team developed a cheap and accurate way to detect E. coli in food, but there was a problem: it was too slow. Food industry representatives said that a 2-day waiting period for results — however accurate —  meant money lost in extra refrigeration and storage.

Color-changing materials, meanwhile, take testing in a different direction; these “smart labels” are easy to make, cheap and change color from clear to blue or cloudy when pathogens are present. This means food plants could pack and ship as usual and still reap the benefits of accurate testing.

Open Innovation

That’s how the FDA aims to solve the food testing problem. According to Palmer Orlandi, Senior Science Adviser for the FDA, there are three other technologies to watch in the fight against pathogens. First are hand-held detectors. While these are currently restricted to laboratories, there’s hope that in the near future they’ll produce real-time results in factory settings without the need for specialized training.

Whole genome sequencing (WSG) and geographic information systems (GIS) also hold potential. WSG could allow researchers to link food contamination incidents to their source, while GIS will help track the movement of pathogens from farms to factories to tables.

Back to Basics

Color-changing labels and other innovations have real potential when it comes to minimizing end-user concerns. But what about the rest of the food chain? In Alberta, for example, eight million pounds of beef had to be recalled in 2012 after an E. coli outbreak was linked to a local beef processing plant. With eighteen people sick and facing the largest recall in Canada’s history, the food industry took a massive hit — one that color-changing labels could have mitigated but not eliminated.

As a result, it’s critical for food processing companies to focus first on the basics: clean machines and a full stop to production if any pathogens are detected. Ideally, intelligent labels and other new technologies can help prevent one-off infections, while getting back to basics should eliminate the bulk of pathogen issues.

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