Right now, it’s hard to know whether you’ve eaten something that contains E. coli, salmonella or other foodborne bacteria until you’re frantically looking for the closest bathroom. But a team of food scientists at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst have developed technology that could warn you about potentially contaminated food and keep you from taking a single forkful. And – best of all – preventing food poisoning could be as simple as buying a $30 smartphone accessory.
Currently, in order to determine whether food contains harmful pathogens, scientists collect a sample, rinse it, and then save a small amount of the water. They allow the bacteria to reproduce for 24 hours, then someone in a lab coat has the unenviable task of counting the number of bacteria the next day. It takes time and equipment that most of us don’t have in our homes or hotel rooms.
But microbiologist Lynne McLandsborough and food science professor Lili He are working on a smartphone app – and a $30 clip-on microscope attachment – that could both detect and see any barf-inducing bacteria in food samples. According to NPR, the app would come with a small “chemically coated chip” that the user would dip in contaminated water (you’d still have to go through the rinse-and-sample steps that scientists currently use) and then allow it to soak for 30 minutes. After that time has elapsed, bacteria will be visible through the microscope attachment.
“Right now, this is really preliminary," McLandsborough told NPR. "We can detect bacteria with the iPhone, but we don't know if they're pathogenic – if they're harmful bacteria or good bacteria."
The team said that they will have to further refine the technology and that it’s still “several years” from hitting the market. But it’s still a step closer to being a go-to gadget for travelers who love seafood and street vendors.
Until this shows up in the App Store, there are still a few steps you can take to keep your digestive system safe (or safe-ish) when you’re on the road. The FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition recommends avoiding tap water in developing countries, skipping raw fruits and vegetables that might’ve been washed in unsafe water (I learned this the hard way after eating salad greens in Turkey) and avoiding prepared food that might have been sitting out for several hours – so maybe skip those restaurant buffets.
Hurry up, UMass! There are so many oysters we’d like to try.