Checking food products for contaminants is required for companies in the business, but it’s also a no-brainer even without the laws.
Customer illness is hardly great advertising.
To make sure everything is in good shape, samples are taken routinely from production lines, then sent for testing at in-house labs or ones outside the plant. Even with in-house labs, results can take a week. Time may stretch even longer for commercial labs.
Wouldn’t it be better if test results were immediate?
Michael Danquah and a research team from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga are trying find a way.
Associate dean in the UTC College of Engineering and Computer Science, Danquah and three University faculty members—UC Foundation Associate Professor Dalei Wu and Assistant Professor Kahlid Tantawi, both experts in mechatronics, and Henry Spratt, a professor and microbiologist—are working on brand-new methods that give instantaneous results on whether contaminants are present in food products.
It’s a two-pronged approach.
“The monitoring process is not only going to be based on a single approach,” Danquah said. “We are going to use a multimodal approach of monitoring, having an electrochemical component and also an optical component.”
The team recently received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for research. Collaborators at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Virginia Commonwealth University received $150,000 of the funding, Danquah said.
“This is actually going to fill a gap in the industrial operation and make the industry a better, more robust, more rapid, real-time way of assessing pathogens,” Danquah said.
The No. 1 goal is to make food safer for the public, but the new testing methods also will save money for the companies, preventing expensive recalls on their products, he said.
The first step in the research is developing a unique probe with a biological molecule—called an “aptasensor”—that will bond with proteins on the surface of the pathogen, Danquah explained. The connection creates an electrochemical reaction that is picked up by the probe. An alert signal is immediately sent to monitoring equipment over a wireless network.
“We can use a lot from that kind of signal,” Danquah said.
In the second detection method, the probe is able to “see” light from the electrochemical reaction.
“The biochip will have a glass surface, so immediately when there is a binding to the surface protein, we can monitor that as well,” Danquah said.
The NSF grant runs for three years, he said, and the hope is to develop a prototype of the aptasensor, which may lead to more grants to continue the research.
Danquah also hopes the food-processing industries will be interested in the research.
“The beauty of having the industry involved is they can also help us to test the technology as we develop it.”