NEWS: Intelligent Biosensors to Track Food Spoilage

15-03-2018

Clemson University researchers are working to develop packages that would use communication between cells to detect food that’s beginning to spoil. This ‘intelligent’ packaging would use sensors to detect biological processes – specifically, the signals cells send to each other when they start to break down.

This cell-to-cell communication, called quorum sensing, uses signaling molecules called autoinducers. Kay Cooksey and Claudia Ionita of the Clemson food, nutrition and packaging sciences department are designing sensors that would identify autoinducers present in packaged foods.

“The idea behind the quorum sensing is that it makes use of a biological process that microorganisms normally do,” said Cooksey, the Cryovac Endowed Chair in the department. “The idea is to take what the microorganisms do naturally, put that with being able to sense that they are starting to create a food spoilage situation and build that in to a sensor."

Cooksey and Ionita will identify autoinducers present in packaged foods and design a biosensor array that can monitor the development of microbes that can cause food spoilage.

“We came up with this idea after reading some other papers,” Ionita said. “We are trying to build a sensor that can detect food spoilage (when it begins). We’re trying to improve the detection elements currently on the market.” They have received a $100,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture for the research project.

According to Cooksey, using labels or materials that change colours are limited in use, not a direct indicator of spoilage and usually signal when it is too late to be useful.

“By the time the colour change occurs, the human nose can just as easily detect the aroma of the volatiles,” she said. “Results from the proposed research will serve as a foundation for biosensors and ultimately intelligent packaging to effectively monitor changes in food and, in turn, improve food quality and safety.”

Between 30 – 40% of the edible food supply is wasted annually in the United States. According to the USDA, this amount of waste has far-reaching impact on food security, resource conservation and climate change.

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