Nanoscale technology: the future of food safety

Related tags Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology has the potential to dramatically improve the
quality of food production at a time when consumer concerns over
safety are increasingly influencing key business decisions,
writes Anthony Fletcher.

Indeed the technology, which involves the study and use of materials at an extremely small scale - at sizes of millionths of a millimetre - could provide some innovative answers to current problems of sanitation.

"There is a lot of work on nanosensors at the moment, for example in the use of nano-particulates of silver in the purification of water,"​ Ottilia Saxl, chief executive of the Institute of Nanotechnology​ told

"The Romans after all used to put silver coins in their water bags - it seems strange that it has taken us all these years to get back there."

In addition, scientists are working on dirt-repellent coatings at the nanoscale, a concept that could have important applications for the safety of food production sites.

"If you drop water onto a lotus leaf, it skites off,"​ said Saxl. "This is because the leaf is coated by tiny wax pyramids, limiting the amount of surface area that a drop can land on. There is no surface area for the drop to stick to."

Saxl says that many companies are looking into applying this lotus effect, with a great deal of research going on at the University of Bonn in Germany. Abattoirs and meat processing plants in particular could benefit from such technology.

Nanotechnology also has the potential to address some of the big-picture issues. The threat of bioterrorism has made food safety along the supply chain a government as well as an industry priority - tight new customs regulations are coming into force in the US this month, and strict new rules governing traceability within the EU were introduced this year.

Although radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is being pushed hard by retailers as a viable means of automating traceability, it is nanotechnology that could ensure that the agricultural sector uses new traceability rules to their advantage. For example, nanoscale monitors could be linked to recording and tracking devices to monitor temperature changes, while other devices could be used to detect for pesticides and genetically modified crops (GMOs) within foodstuffs.

In addition the global livestock industry is desperate to install measures that would guarantee the safety of the food supply. Outbreaks of disease have resulted in export bans and collapsed markets. Japan for example banned US beef and beef products after a single case of BSE in an 8-year-old cow imported into the United States from Canada was detected in December 2003, and is showing resistance to fully reopening its borders.

The fortunes of this sector could therefore be transformed if supplies could be guaranteed to be completely safe. Scientists at the Kopelman Laboratory at the University of Michigan are developing non-invasive bioanalytical nanosensors that could perhaps be placed in, say, a cow's saliva gland in order to detect single virus particles long before they have had a chance to multiply and long before disease symptoms are evident.

"The beauty of nanotechnology is that these applications are interchangeable,"​ said Saxl. "If a nanotech application is applicable in one sector, then it is often applicable in ten. Little start-up nanotech companies often find themselves with an embarrassment of riches, not knowing which sector to target first."

The food industry, which is under intense pressure to guarantee safety and at the same time achieve better profit margins, is just beginning to see the possibilities that nanotechnology offers right along the supply chain, from the field right through to the factory and onto the supermarket shelf.

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