Handheld inspection tool may increase food safety for soldiers

Military food inspectors may one day hold the key to avoiding foodborne illness in the palms of their hands. The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is working to develop a small, sensitive, hand-held device that will both capture and detect dangerous pathogens that can cause food-related illness. 

The effort received a 2013 U. S. Food and Drug Administration leveraging and collaboration award. Under the award, scientists from Food Protection Team and Macromolecular Sciences and Engineering Team at the Natick Soldier Research, napoleonDevelopment and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, are collaborating with the FDA, Winchester Engineering and Analytical Center, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

NSRDEC originally came up with the idea of conductive membrane sensors and performed the initial research under the Army’s 6.1 basic research programs. This research is the basis for the collaboration with the FDA and MIT.

The food inspection tool will reduce the danger soldiers face from contaminated food. Food safety is critical to combat readiness. Soldier performance, quality of life, and health can be seriously affected by undetected pathogens in food.

“Military operations at some overseas locations where food is procured locally and food safety laws are lenient, are especially problematic. Soldiers can lose a lot of time from work because they get sick from pathogens present in water and food,” Andre Senecal said. “We are starting our work with E. coli O157:H7, but the goal is to look at all microbial pathogens and toxins that they produce.”

“The leading cause of illness among troops has historically been gastroenteritis, with one of the primary culprits being E. coli,” McGraw explained.

Biosensors consist of a biological component, such as an antibody or DNA that is capable of capturing, detecting and recording information about a measurable physical change in the biosensor system.