Smart materials detect meat contamination before it hits shelves

Research team (left to right): Diana Martinez, ChanChan Wang, Preetam Anbukarasu, Dominic Sauvageau, and Anastasia Elias.

Edmonton–Have you ever worried about getting Salmonella or E. Coli poisoning from meat?

Anastasia Elias and Dominic Sauvageau, professors in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering are developing smart materials to detect harmful microbes that cause food-borne illnesses before products reach consumers.

“Agriculture and food production is the second-largest industrial sector in Alberta and our smart materials will increase food safety and save time and money when testing for spoilage,” Elias said. 

There are many stages of food processing from the packaging facility, to transport to stores, to the consumers’ refrigerators where contaminants can affect products such as meat. The new smart materials for food packaging will increase the safety in food production.

“The current swab-test method used for food contamination requires specialized personnel and equipment and takes a long time to get the results,” Sauvageau explains. “With the smart materials, food suppliers and even consumers will instantly be able to see if a product has been contaminated just by looking at the colour of the packaging.”

The project involves the development and combination of three technologies: the stimuli-responsive polymer (i.e. material), biological detection system, and food microbiology. The research team has been working for the past two years on these technologies. They have been programming the material to respond (by changing colour) to the presence pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, and to changes in temperature. The material responds by changing from blue to white, or from clear to cloudy.

“In Europe there are labels that detect temperature change, but temperature is only an indirect indicator of food spoilage. The key difference with our smart materials is that they will be able to directly indicate the presence of pathogens and help show exactly where it occurred in the supply chain,” Elias explained.

In many cases of bacterial outbreak, it takes time to investigate where the problem arose in the food supply chain. Smart materials could help pinpoint where and when the problem occurred and action could be taken immediately to remedy the problem.

“A lot of the time, there is a reaction only after an outbreak occurs and this puts the public in some danger. These smart materials add another layer of safety because they could detect a problem before the product reaches the consumer,” Sauvageau said.

The research team, supported by funding from the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency, is interdisciplinary in nature, with each researcher having specific expertise. Elias and Sauvageau are assisted by: Preetam Anbukarasu, a PhD student in materials engineering; Diana Martinez, who has a biomedical engineering background and is currently pursuing an MSc in chemical engineering; Zachary Storms, a post-doctoral fellow with a background in biochemical engineering; and ChanChan Wang, a post-doctoral fellow with a degree in chemical engineering and expertise in polymer characterization and modification.

“The students and postdoctoral fellows all have their own specialization, but they all overlap in this project so it truly is an interdisciplinary team,” Sauvageau said. “Our meetings are particularly interesting since everyone brings such different perspectives and ideas about food packaging and safety to the table.”

The next step for the research team is integrating the three technologies and developing a smart label design that is both suitable and feasible for industry implementation.

“One of the challenges, like with any research project, is that the smart materials need to be simple and cheap in order to be commercialized,” Sauvageau said.

The researchers are working with industry to determine how to design the materials for ease of use while maintaining visual appeal to consumers. For example, consumers usually prefer clear packaging so they can see the product. They have also been careful to use non-harmful chemicals and materials because the smart material needs to be in contact with the food in order to detect pathogens. This will help increase the speed in which their new material is approved for food packaging. The technology is currently awaiting patent approval and acceptance of their report in a scientific journal.

“Technology is always evolving, so there is room for constant improvement and alternative applications. These smart labels do have the potential to become an industry standard for food safety,” Elias said.