Did you know that one in 10 people worldwide suffer from food-borne diseases? Consuming spoiled food can negatively impact our health and lead to infections from E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and other bacteria and germs. If not treated on time, these infections can become life-threatening. About 420,000 people die every year due to complications from consuming contaminated food.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, food safety has become more critical than ever. Technology has also made its way into the food safety industry to combat different types of food hazards effectively. In this article, we’ll look at the most common food hazards and how technological innovation plays a role in combating them.
Types of Food Hazards
There are four main types of food hazards that you need to consider:
- Physical hazards: These occur when a foreign object enters your food. They can be natural, like poisonous stems of certain fruits, or artificial, such as hair that fell in food while cooking. Natural physical hazards, such as dirt or dust, are often less harmful than artificial ones, like metal, hair fragments, and glass.
- Chemical hazards: These can enter the food naturally or intentionally during food processing. They can be natural chemicals like mycotoxins or artificial preservatives like sodium nitrate in excess. Trace amounts of pesticides that enter produce also fall in this category.
- Biological hazards: These refer to the microorganism contamination of food. Bacteria, viruses, and parasites are everywhere, including the air, food, water, animals, and the human body. While not all of them are toxic, if the poisonous ones enter food, they can cause potentially fatal diseases in severe cases. Food needs to be stored at specific temperature and pH levels to prevent such growth and contamination.
- Allergenic hazards: This is the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the US. The human body can have abnormal reactions to specific food proteins, which can cause allergic reactions. While this hazard may vary from person to person, most people are allergic to milk products, and particular kinds of meat or fish.
Technologies Contributing to Food Safety
Here are some of the standard and latest inventions in the food safety industry:
1. Germ-Killing Technologies
Several germ-killing technologies are in the works to help avoid some of the food hazards mentioned above, especially those caused by microorganisms. Disinfectant sprays can be sprayed on food directly, killing pathogens on contact. Scientists are always on the search for substances that can kill germs but are not poisonous to humans or animals.
Synthetic chemicals serving as healthier pesticide alternatives are also in the works. However, it’s important to note that solution spraying is only a temporary solution to germ-killing. Most of their effects wear out depending on how long it’s been after the spraying. You cannot spray on the product after it has been packaged or is in transit. It’s likely that food will still be contaminated even if you spray it once or twice.
A more effective germicide is UV light technology. UV light emits short-wave radiation at a high frequency that can potentially kill most pathogens, especially bacteria and fungi. It is an alternative pathway to sprays, as it fundamentally damages the DNA of the microorganisms, which prevents them from reproducing. Scientists are now developing compact UV devices that food companies can use as food scanners to disinfect it. The scanner beam has enough energy to kill the microorganism’s DNA. However, this technology can still only scan the food surface and might not be as precise for areas not directly under the beam.
2. IoT and Smart Sensors
Food safety experts now use sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve food safety. Smart sensors can monitor several parameters, such as temperature, humidity, and pathogen count for food.
IoT was first commonly adopted for fleet management systems and has now made its way into transporting perishable goods. IoT sensors can monitor the environmental conditions of perishable items during transit to ensure the temperature is low enough to prevent microbial growth and high enough to keep them from freezing. They also give out warnings for temperature imbalance or system failure to avoid contamination of food beforehand.
One FDA-approved application of IoT sensors to disinfect food is ozone dispersion. Ozone gas can now purify water, produce, and meats. The gas penetrates the entire space, kills any microbes inside, and prevents new ones from growing or entering any food containers. Using IoT sensors and networks, food safety experts can deliver ozone gas in the right concentration for food safety purposes. However, ozone is a contributor to global warming and is raising several other safety concerns when it comes to its use, even in food safety. So scientists are looking into other gasses which can fulfill the same goal without harming the environment.
3. Blockchain for Traceability
Blockchain technology helps ensure food safety through the supply chain. It works by recording transitions across several computers on a network. Each transaction is grouped into a ‘block,’ which connects to form a chain, hence the name.
In food supply and safety, this technology allows consumers and sellers to track products from their production site to delivery. Since all the information is stored in a decentralized network, it becomes nearly impossible to tamper with or have unauthorized access to the data.
This secure process makes sure food doesn’t arrive contaminated or mishandled. In case of an outbreak, this tracking mechanism can help detect the source of the contamination and prevent any malpractice regarding food safety. And since it provides real-time information on product condition and transport, it also helps optimize logistics and reduce food waste costs.
Other technologies, such as automatic food processing via robots or rapid pathogen detection via Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS), are also in the works. But robots are still evolving and can’t be relied on entirely. Efficient molecular biology test devices for pathogens are still under development.
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been more concerned about food safety than ever, and technology is changing the way we consume food and ensure its safety. The food safety tech revolution ranges from developing germ detection technologies, IoT sensors, and real-time monitoring via blockchain to using AI to automate food processing. While some of these technologies are still in their development phase, they’re on the path to preventing food-borne illnesses once fully developed. The future of food safety will be highly tethered to technology, where technological innovation will dictate how we consume, sell, and produce food sustainably and safely.