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This $30 smartphone attachment may soon be able to prevent food poisoning

Researchers have developed a smartphone app which pairs with a $30 microscope attachment to analyze food and determine if bad bacteria are present.

Food poisoning is caused by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with viruses, bacteria, toxins, parasites, or chemicals. Symptoms often start within hours and include anything from mild intestinal discomfort to severe dehydration, vomiting and diarrhea. Contamination can even occur at home if the food is not handled or cooked properly.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 48 million Americans get sick from a foodborne illness each year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. There are very few methods for preventing food poisoning in part because testing for harmful bacteria is done with specialized, costly equipment. Current technology also requires 24-48 hours for bacteria to multiply in order to get a big enough sample for testing. But this may all soon change.

This $30 smartphone microscope may soon be able to prevent food poisoning
Image source: UMass Amherst

Food scientists at the University of Massachussetts Amherst are working on technology that binds to even the smallest amounts of bacteria. The video below shows the procedure.

A user rinses a contaminated food item with water and then places the chip into the liquid. This is a specially coated chip which relies on 3-mercaptophenylboronic acid (3-MBPA) to attract and bind bacteria. Within half an hour the microscope, which attaches to any smartphone camera, reveals the bacteria.

“Bacteria can be in the very, very low numbers, and cause illness,” said UMass microbiologist Lynne McLandsborough.

“So that detection needs to detect low numbers.”

This is more proof of concept rather than a working device as it does not distinguish good from bad bacteria. A commercial product is still several years away from hitting the market.

The hope is that one day consumers will buy the low-cost testing kit for their own kitchens. The gizmo could also be used by aid workers responding to natural disasters. Its not surprising the technology has already piqued interest from several food-processing companies.

“Most people around the world cook their vegetables before eating, but here in the U.S. more and more people like to eat these foods raw. This gave us the idea that a quick test that can be done at home would be a good idea.” said food scientist Lili He.

“Microbial contamination is an important research topic right now. It has been a problem for a long time, but it is now the number one concern for food safety in the U.S.”

Source: UMass Amherst

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Marko Maslakovic

Marko founded Gadgets & Wearables in 2014, having worked for more than 15 years in the City of London’s financial district. Since then, he has led the company’s charge to become a leading information source on health and fitness gadgets and wearables.

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