A lab on a chip
Food contamination is mostly monitored in the production phase, such as in factories, using methods where analysis may take up to a week. Standard methodologies involve several time-consuming steps that slow down time to result. This delay in identification of contaminated products means that some are released to the market prematurely and consumed, posing a risk to consumer safety. This food testing paradox is demonstrated by the rate of 50 weekly recalls across the EU and the US.
In a bid to combat this, the Technion Israel Institute of Technology has developed a technology that provides sensitive, faster detection of contaminants. It is based on several concentration techniques
using a ‘lab on a chip’ format. As the world’s largest and most dynamic food innovation community, EIT Food has supported the Lab on a Chip innovation project since 2020. EIT Food is supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union. The project
aims to use this technology to develop food safety products and services which can significantly reduce detection time. Ultimately, this work will improve food safety and minimise food product recalls.
Professors Yechezkel Kashi and Gilad Yossifon, who lead EIT Food’s ‘Lab on a Chip’ project, discussed the future of testing for food safety with Dairy Industries International:
Q. What is the key issue for analysis for food contamination in production and how is Lab on a Chip helping to deal with that?
Professor Kashi: As a microbiologist, I am experienced with all kinds of regulation and what exists now in the market. Most of the current tests are based on culturing – where one takes a sample and carries out a series of tests, with results coming within a day to two weeks. It is quite problematic especially for food products. There could be a warning signal after two days at the producer, but the ingredients that were contaminated could still be used which leads to recalls. This also creates economic challenges, with direct costs for consumer recalls.
The world has been looking for quicker tests for years. Over the last few years, molecular biology has seen a big revolution in clinical microbiology, which along with lab-on-a-chip technology may enable faster testing. It is happening now, and the consumer now has a better idea of what happens themselves, with testing for coronavirus.
Professor Yossifon: It is also connected to Covid-19, with the impact on the consumer and the economic impact. The number of people who die from food contamination amounts to more than five times the number of people who died from the pandemic every year. It is a tremendous issue for the global health industry, and particularly for children.
Q. What has been the barrier to getting shorter analysis times in food production before now?
Professor Kashi: It is challenging to convince companies and regulatory bodies to accept new ways for testing contaminants on food. Standards that have been acceptable for decades are considered conventions that are hard to change. There are innovations in the market and, recently, it seems like there is more openness towards new and more efficient alternatives.
The need to identify only a few human pathogens and one colony forming unit in food products can be very problematic, and more sensitive testing is still required.
In order to reach the level where food contamination can be detected the bacteria needs to grow, which takes time. The technology features an additional ability to concentrate the bacteria to have more
sensitive and shorter detection time.
Also, like many of the challenges within our food system, collaboration between stakeholders across the food system is key to driving innovation in this area. EIT Food’s focus on co-creation means that it is connecting relevant parties to accelerate innovation and problem-solving in the area of food safety and transparency, helping to accelerate the development and implementation of shorter-time analysis
in food production.
Q. How can analysis be improved at the various steps of production, such as farming and various steps in the production line?
Professor Kashi: In addition to innovation projects such as Lab on a Chip to improve the analysis itself, new automatic technologies including IOT, artificial intelligence and food sensing technologies are making it easier digitalise traceability. This can improve the safety, efficiency and sustainability of food, as well as help to increase consumer trust.
Tracking food products via digital systems removes the risk of human error and provides actors at different stages of the food value chain access to information which helps them to ensure the reliability of the health claims and sustainability of the product. Digital traceability can alleviate and reduce risks
associated with food safety and food fraud by making it easier to track the route of a problem.
By using food testing techniques in a digital way, people can get a very clear picture from all the steps of production, including the sequencing along the entire production line, with a digital rapid test. In addition, the classical techniques require a lot of experienced manpower, to see how it looks, and check which colour it is. The shorter-time test is designed to avoid the need to use full scale laboratory and highly experienced people and can be used on site.
Professor Yossifon: We are manufacturing prototypes of these detection kits and are already testing them on actual food products obtained from our industrial collaborators. We have simulated in the lab as close as possible what would occur in a plant, with many different types of food samples processed. We also strive to enter the market with a specific kit for the dairy industry that will make it possible to track the entire production line from the cow to the final cheese products. Our collaboration with EIT Food is set to conclude in Summer 2022, and we hope to do as much as possible by then.
Q. How do you think the pandemic has affected the goal of developing shorter food analysis times?
Professor Kashi: The pandemic has accelerated the rate of digitalisation across all sectors due to lockdowns and isolation requirements and has resulted in a need to move things quickly and efficiently through supply chains to ensure access and to rapidly identify safety problems.
Therefore, the need to quickly detect and deal with fraud in food supply chains has been made more urgent than ever before, accelerating the rate of innovation in the sector to tackle this challenge. In addition, what became globally common is the use of clinical rapid tests, which results in increased openness towards innovations such as Lab on a Chip. The pandemic caused much trouble to our project in terms of delays in R&D and lack of regular availability of manpower, products and equipment.
However, we were still able to push forward research and even had an unpredictable breakthrough in a significant time-saving approach to enumerate total bacterial presence in food samples.
Q. How many countries are involved?
In addition to the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, partners involved in this project include:
• Grupo AN S.Coop (Spain)
• Queen’s University Belfast (UK)
• Maspex Group (Poland)
• Energy Pulse Systems (Portugal)
• EUFIC (Belgium)
The flexibility and support of EIT Food were essential during the challenging times of the pandemic. EIT Food funding also contributed to the educational aspect of the project, involving numerous students who learnt as participants, about science and food safety. Last but not least, thanks to all our European partner, who made this project possible.
For more information please visit: eitfood.eu/projects/lab-on-a-chip