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Improving food safety through faster food contaminant testing

Project coordinator Dr. Shay Kirzner explains how EIT Food’s Lab on a Chip is vital to advancing food contaminant detection to ensure higher food safety, lower energy expenditure and reduced food waste.

Dr. Shay Kirzner’s background in molecular biology makes him ideally placed to lead the team behind EIT Food’s Lab on a Chip project, an innovative early-warning platform for food safety.

Lab on a Chip is the result of a coordinated effort between the Technion, the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), Energy Pulse Systems, Maspex, Queen’s University Belfast, PZZ Lubella, and Grupo AN. Since beginning of 2020, they have been working on the development of a rapid food contaminant detection technology. Such an innovative technology will mark an important next step in improving food contaminant detection and hence food safety.

Shay explains the need to continuously improve food contamination detection:

Foods can contain contaminants that cause foodborne illnesses. Almost 1 in 10 people in the world fall ill after eating contaminated food.

To avoid this, food samples are tested at various stages of the food supply chain and recalled if contaminated. However, conventional laboratory analysis of the samples usually takes several days, whilst the food is kept on hold and refrigerated. The Lab on a Chip team is developing a much faster technology that can be used without the need for a laboratory or trained scientist.

Shay explains how the technology will be used:

A food sample is introduced onto a small device, which will detect certain contaminants that may be present, and indicate the result after only a few hours. The technology is based on a combination between microfluidics and molecular biology.

The reduction in wait time will have many different positive impacts, specifically:

Lab on a Chip will reduce the time the food is on hold, thereby reducing food waste and energy expenditure; it allows for tests to be undertaken more frequently, which makes food safer; and lastly, less food recalls also mean reduced cost to the producer.

In 2020, EUFIC conducted a mobile consumer survey including an interactive forum among 30 UK participants to gain first insights on consumer attitudes towards food safety and rapid detection technologies. Participants could discuss their concerns and questions with the researchers.

Shay describes what he found most interesting:

Results showed that consumers are open to implementing the new technology. They are interested in being informed if their food was tested through Lab on a Chip, and for what contaminant specifically. Most consumers wanted to receive this information through a food label.

The insights from the 2020 survey will feed into a comprehensive survey to be conducted in 2021 covering Germany, UK, Netherlands, and Italy (500 participants per country).

Shay talks about the results the team are looking to gain from the 2021 Lab on a Chip survey. Most importantly:

This large-scale survey will allow us to quantify consumer needs, attitudes and perceptions concerning food safety and rapid detection devices for food contamination, and to examine whether there are cross-country differences.

When asked what Shay has enjoyed the most about leading the project so far, it is obvious that he is thankful to all the project partners:

The immense challenge of reducing the waiting time for results, whilst creating a device that is easy to use even for non-scientists, has demanded creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. However, the most rewarding part has been the collaboration between all our talented partners, to make this project a success.

- Dr. Shay Kirzner is a Senior Research Associate at The Technion Institute of Technology. He holds a PhD in Biology.
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Lab on a Chip - Early-warning platform for food safety