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article imageNew Widget Warns Shoppers of Harmful Bugs in Food

By David Silverberg     Mar 20, 2008 in Technology
A small iron strip could save you from bad milk in the future. A Penn State engineer has created a technology to detect food bugs in milk, juice or soup, which can be used in grocery checkouts and scanned like a regular barcode.
Digital Journal — When Craig Grimes came home one night to find out his wife had bought a bloated juice carton, ballooning to an obese size, he was shocked. He realized an expiration date can only tell the customer so much, and food mishandling can lead to products being stored at improper refrigeration levels.
Luckily for consumers at large, Grimes is working on a plastic widget that can detect sickly bacteria in various supermarket goods. A professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Electrical Engineering Department, Grimes has created a sensor that can float around in cartons of milk, soup or juice, and alert the supermarket checkout cashier if the product contains food-poisoning bacteria. A scanner at the checkout counter can sound an alarm if harmful bacteria are present.
In an interview with DigitalJournal.com, Grimes explained how his innovative widget works: made largely from iron, the thin strip vibrates in a magnetic field. A scanner can detect when that strip vibrates differently depending on the viscosity of the liquids it is submersed in — because food bugs causes milk to decompose, lowering its viscosity, the widget would detect the change and vibrate at a lower frequency.
“Just like anti-theft markers in the backs of CDs or DVDs, these sensors can let the scanner about the status of a product,” says Grimes, who collaborated on these sensors with Qingyun Cai at Hunan University in Changsha, China.
While Grimes and Cai worked extensively on testing the widget with spoiled milk, they have also applied the technology to other liquids like fruit juice and soup. All they need to do is tweak the strip to work with these other products.
Grimes says grocery stores would be the ideal venue for using these sensors, although he notes how everyday consumers can check the freshness of their food if they bought an electronic scanner, costing approximately $100.
“If a milk seller wanted us to implement these sensors right now, we could,” Grimes says. “The technology is there, and we could develop these strips very quickly.”
The technology has been created to help curb food-borne illnesses, which affect 76 million Americans annually. Contaminants include salmonella, e. coli, and Staphylococcus aureus, and Grimes says his sensor could detect any food bug swimming in liquid. “We hear a lot about people dying from plane crashes, but what about dying from food contamination?” he asks. “Food quality is a funny business.”
Grimes is hopeful the sensors will win favour soon. Already, the same sensor technology has been applied to blood clot kinetics, which can track viscosity changes in the clotting cascade. Those sensors are expected to come to market in 2010.
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