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A Biosensor for Food FreshnessECI Biotech ChickenSense™ Biosensors will provide a scientificbasis for determining the freshness of poultry or meat.How often do consumers go to the grocery store and buy a chicken breast –only to bring it home and find that it already smells?The rancid odor associated with spoilage is caused by the presence ofthousands – even millions – of bacteria. A simple test, however, coulddetect the existence of multifold bacteria. Such a test would provide a realmeasure of freshness, and possibly even help prevent food illness.Meaningless “Sell-by” DatesSell-by dates marked on meat and poultry packages are arbitrary timestamps. Although many grocers and food producers do microbiologicalresearch to determine how long their product stays fresh under normalconditions, the sell-by dates are affixed when the meat or chicken getspackaged at the plant or in the supermarket. If the integrity of the hotdogpackage is damaged during shipping, or in stocking the grocery shelf, thenthe product can spoil earlier than the pre-determined date. Improperhandling can also lead to contamination. Hence a mouthwatering filetmignon steak or plump chicken breast may look fresh, but the mostappealing food product in the grocery store may not be what a consumerwants to cook and eat.The company ECI Biotech recently conducted a spoilage test of 100store-bought chickens with premium chicken breasts fresh from aproduction plant (kindly provided by MBA Poultry, Inc.) thatdemonstrated that consumers can’t place much trust in sell-by dates.Although the chicken breasts carried statements on their packages,indicating that meat was fresh for two weeks from the purchase date,laboratory tests proved otherwise for a significant portion. ECI Biotechfound that five percent of the chickens in the sample had between 1,000and 1 million bacteria present.
Good meat fresh from a butcher’s shop should have no more than 100 to200 bacteria present on it. Air chilled chicken breasts from MBA Poultryhave even less. By the time a consumer’s nose detects a rotten smell,spoilage bacteria have already grown from a few early inhabitants on achicken breast to a full blown contamination of a million or more colonyforming units of bacteria. But modern science could provide a test todetermine whether poultry or meat has begun to spoil before the onslaughtof disgusting and offensive odors.BioSensorsTo understand how such a test might be devised, it’s important to reviewwhat science knows about the process of spoilage. Present almosteverywhere, bacteria play a role in the natural process of decay. Thesesimple organisms too want to feast on the meat or poultry just like ahuman consumer.To “digest” cell tissue, bacteria secrete protease, an enzyme that allows it toconvert protein into amino acids for the purpose of metabolism. The foulorders – what makes kids say yuck – stem from the release of byproductsthat occur when protease initiates the chemical breakdown of tissue.Why couldn’t a simple test diagnose the abundance of protease? Such a testwould have to involve interaction with protease with another substance toenable marking.Human-manufactured peptides – small chains of proteins – provide thebasis for such a tag. Since protease will interact with any protein, itbecomes possible to design a special one for testing purposes. For instance,a peptide could be constructed containing food dye in its chemical makeup.When protease then cuts a custom-made peptide, the breaking of theamino-acid chain could release food dye as a by-product of the reaction.As the food dye collects on a surface, it would provide a simple markervisible to the consumer’s eye, which would signal a high degree of spoilagebacteria. The sensor would display a colored dot to indicate a high degreeof bacterial contamination. Think of this diagnostic tool as a “litmus test”for freshness. ECI has developed a freshness sensor, Chickensense™ thatwill be first direct measure of freshness for the sell by date.Advancements in applied science make it possible to manufacture suchpeptide sensors at an economical cost. For instance, a peptide-dyeconjugate sandwiched between two membranes could be placed in diaperson which chicken, pork or meat rest in packages. The biosensor would offerconsumers an easy-to-comprehend visual signal for freshness. Moreover,these types of bio-sensors could be laser jet-printed onto poultry or meatdiapers.Consumer IgnoranceWhy hasn’t the meat or poultry industry looked into the adoption of suchtechnology if it’s available for pennies? No industry wants to take onadditional costs without sufficient consumer demand.Yet the public is not yet aware that the field of biotechnology hasdeveloped simple, yet low-cost biosensors for detection of spoilage. Once
they become aware that such diagnostic tools do exist, then consumersmay begin demanding that meat and poultry industry supply “yucksensors” on product shipped to supermarkets. After all, such sensors wouldensure that the public spend their food dollars wisely to obtain the freshestproduct possible at the market.As Americans and other people around the world worry about the foodchain, biosensors offer the ability to allay consumer concerns aboutproduct quality and freshness.For more information on the development of these low-cost, diagnosticsensors to detect microbes and other possible consumer applications, visitECI Biotech’s website: ecibiotech.com