This article appears in Spring Healthy Living 2018.

Best-by labels on food can be hard to read and confusing to understand, so labels are being developed with smart technology that can tell buyers whether their food is safe to consume.

In the future a person will no longer have to sniff, eyeball or wonder whether milk or hamburger has gone bad. He could simply scan it with his phone.

A team of researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, including mechanical and chemical engineers, worked with biochemists to develop a transparent patch that takes the guesswork out of best-by labels, which currently offer only estimates of when food will go bad. This patch can be incorporated into a thin, flexible plastic that can be wrapped around meat or other food products, said Tohid Didar, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, School of Biomedical Engineering and a member of the Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster.

How it works

Foodborne illness is a serious health issue in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, foodborne pathogens result in about 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths per year. About 30 percent of those cases involve children 5 and younger.

The patch was developed to be “simple, affordable and accessible,” Didar said.

The patch is printed with a single strand of molecules specific to a foodborne bacteria. When the sensor in the patch comes into contact with the bacteria in the food product, a handheld device like a phone or camera can scan for it.

The initial project is focused on E. coli, but the patch can be modified to test for other harmful pathogens such as salmonella, Didar said.

The same technology could be used for other applications, such as bandages to indicate whether wounds are infected or for wrapping surgical instruments to assure they are sterile.

“In the future, if you go to a store and you want to be sure the meat you’re buying is safe at any point before you use it, you’ll have a much more reliable way than the expiration date,” said lead study author Hanie Yousefi, a graduate student and research assistant in McMaster’s faculty of engineering.

What’s next

The next step is testing the patch with other bacteria and partnering with other industries.

“A food manufacturer could easily incorporate this into its production process,” and there has been ample interest from the food and tech industries, Didar said.

Getting the invention to market would need a commercial partner and regulatory approvals.

“If all goes well, we might see it going to market in the next few years,” Didar said.