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FOODSNIFFER smartphone app will allow food safety testing by consumers everywhere

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(NaturalNews) European researchers are working on developing a smartphone-embedded sensor that would allow consumers to scan food for the presence of contaminants -- from pesticides and allergens to foodborne infectious agents.

The sensor is being developed under the name FOODSNIFFER (FOOD Safety at the point-of-Need via monolithic spectroscopic chip identiFying harmFul substances in frEsh pRoduce).

Modern food safety system broken

According to FOODSNIFFER project coordinator Ioannis Raptis and exploitation leader Eric Smith, globalization has greatly complicated efforts to ensure the safety of food.

"The industrial revolution and our modern lifestyle have changed our perception of food," they said. "Previous generations used to buy a product based on a long-time trust relationship with the food producer but this is not the case anymore. The complexity and geographical spread of the modern food supply chain may also hide far greater dangers than we may have anticipated, and the ease of distribution of large quantities of potentially unsafe food to many countries within short timeframes may have a snowball effect worldwide and makes tracing of the suspect product difficult."

In recent years, several food safety-related crises have hit Europe. Analysts have attributed these crises to the inability of government agencies to test the majority of food before it reaches consumers. Modern food safety testing technologies are expensive and must be conducted in laboratories, leading European governments to test only about 1 percent of all food products before they reach store shelves. Other governments, including those that export food to Europe, are known to have even weaker food testing policies.

And while many cases of foodborne illness may seem minor, they may actually have lifelong consequences, Raptis and Smith warn.

"Cutting-edge medical research is now showing that short-lived infections are not harmless," they said. "In fact, they may often cause permanent damage to the physiology of many otherwise-healthy people.... This can consist of, for example, disturbance in the immune system."

Putting testing in consumer hands

The idea behind FOODSNIFFER is to develop a device that moves food testing out of the lab and places it into the hands of consumers, while also making sure that the data collected gets transmitted to the relevant scientists and regulators for analysis.

"We expect FOODSNIFFER to bring about a change in how we approach food by empowering us to identify potential dangers along the entire food supply chain," Raptis and Smith said.

The 4 million ($5.5 million) FOODSNIFFER project involves the participation of 10 European partners, including researchers from various fields and industries. The goal is to develop an optical biosensor, embedded in a smartphone, that can scan food -- such as a jar of baby food -- for the chemical signatures of unique toxins including pesticides, mycotoxins and allergens. The sensor would immediately transmit the data collected, along with user metadata including time, date and location, to the Internet cloud. The associated app would allow researchers or other users to compare data collected by different phones and create charts or maps to trace contamination.

"This contrasts with current laboratory practice, which requires delivery of samples to remote locations and a delay before receiving results," Raptis and Smith said.

The device is in the very early stages of development, but preliminary tests of the sensor's ability to detect health-related biomarkers have shown promising results.

"The FOODNIFFER technology is a great step forward in that it would enable us, for the first time, to achieve reliable food surveillance down to the source of production, from the safety of irrigation water to controlling the use of only permitted pesticides," Raptis and Smith said. "This means we will be able to solve the problem where it starts - deep at the source or in the distribution chain."

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