A consortium of European researchers is developing a solution designed to enable rapid molecular analysis of samples taken from anywhere across the entire food chain. The smartphone-based tool is aimed both at food sector companies and the general public, so that we will all be able to analyse our foodstuffs accurately in real time.

New Steps towards End-to-End Monitoring of the Food Chain

The mad cow disease crisis, the dioxin scandal, the Buffalo Grill restaurants case and more recently, in 2012, minced beef contaminated with Ecoli bacteria and last year’s Findus affair... food crises have in recent years aroused a widespread feeling of distrust among consumers. Moreover, in these times of intense globalisation when we consume produce from the four corners of the globe, the supply chain is complex, and tracing suspect products even more so. At the moment, analysing foodstuffs is an expensive process that generally takes place in a laboratory, with the corollary that less than 2% of all food on supermarket shelves will have been been tested before it reaches customers. However, technological progress in the field of biomarkers and the increasing power of smartphones now means that these mobile devices can be transformed into a sort of portable food analysis lab. In the United States this is what Californian startup CDX Life is aiming for, with a phone-linked system designed to analyse the composition of liquid, solid or gaseous samples. Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic we have the EU FOODSNIFFER* Food Safety Project, whose goal is to provide a system of fast screening that can be used anywhere and everywhere along the food chain.

Reliable, operational food surveillance at reasonable cost

This €4 million project has assembled a broad range of expertise, bringing together ten European partners from different fields, including researchers from various disciplines, several small or medium-sized companies and key industrial partners. “The FOODSNIFFER technology is a great step forward in that it would enable us, for the first time, to achieve reliable food surveillance down to the source of production, from the safety of irrigation water to verifying the use of only permitted pesticides. This means we will be able to solve the problem where it starts – deep at the source or in the distribution chain,” underlines project coordinator Ioannis Raptis, explaining: “The heart of the envisioned solution is an all-silicon optoelectronic platform that integrates all essential components of an optical biosensor, namely the light sources, the sensing elements and the detectors, on a single chip of a few tens of mm2.” The system will be able to detect harmful substances such as pesticides, mycotoxins and allergens in a food sample in less than half an hour. Considerably reducing the waiting time currently required for lab results in this way could be crucial when decisions have to be made in an emergency situation. The chip is also based on standard silicon technologies, which makes it ideal for mass production at low cost, the consortium points out.

Applications in the food industry

The project partners aim to have the smartphone app ready by 2016. The app will enable online transmission of test results in addition to other data such as the identity of the user, the hour and date, and the whereabouts and specific details of the sample. It will then be possible to compare results stored in the FOODSNIFFER database, and create and update tables and maps which will be useful to producers, suppliers, merchants and consumers. The partners hope that food sector players interested in having a means to certify the quality of their produce for their customers will come on board the project.  Uses of the digital analysis tool could include providing vital information to people who suffer from allergies, or for those travelling abroad in places where food is very different from what they have at home. Not least, as the system will be able to analyse a range of beverages, including milk and wine, it might also appeal to oenophiles.

*FOODSNIFFER, an acronym for ‘FOOD Safety at the point-of-Need via monolithic spectroscopic chip identiFying harmFul substances in frEsh pRoduce’, is a project funded under the European Union’s programme for Research & Development