Editorial Feature

Optical Sensors in Monitoring Food Quality and Safety

By harnessing the power of light, optical sensors are poised to revolutionize how we monitor food quality and safety. Learn more about the use of optical sensors in detecting food contamination in this article. 

Technologist in protective white suit with hairnet and mask standing in food factory.

Image Credit: Aleksandar Malivuk/Shutterstock.com

Foodborne illnesses remain a major global public health burden, causing over 600 million cases and 420,000 deaths worldwide each year (WHO). Preventing food contamination is critical to curbing this suffering and loss of life. However, conventional techniques for detecting food contaminants and pathogens can be slow, labor-intensive, and ill-suited for rapid, on-site analysis. Optical sensors are emerging as a transformative technology that can overcome these limitations through rapid, sensitive detection of food contaminants.

The Risks of Food Contamination

Foodborne diseases arise from consuming foods contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms, toxins, or chemical residues. Bacterial pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli O157:H7 account for an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5000 deaths in the U.S. annually (CDC). Chemical hazards are also of major concern, with frequent outbreaks linked to heavy metals, pesticide residues, industrial chemicals, and natural toxins. Even low-level chemical exposures can cause cumulative toxicity and cancer risks.

Preventing food contamination is especially critical for vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals who are prone to severe complications. However, complex food supply chains with numerous processing stages provide ample opportunities for contamination. Raw ingredients can be contaminated at any point from farm to fork. Processing equipment and factory environments also facilitate microbial cross-contamination.

Therefore, rapid contaminant detection is essential for identifying and containing potential food safety hazards before they lead to human exposure.

Limitations of Conventional Detection Methods

Traditional food analysis techniques like microbial culture, chromatography, and immunoassays are considered the gold standard for sensitivity and selectivity. However, these conventional methods require lengthy sample preparation, complex instrumentation, and highly-trained personnel. Enrichment steps for microbial detection take days to weeks to amplify cell levels, and isolation requires specific media. Such long turnaround times mean food products are often consumed well before getting contaminant test results.

Additionally, the lack of portability requires samples to be sent to centralized labs, causing delays in preventing contaminated foods from entering the market. These challenges underscore the need for rapid, field-ready technologies to complement traditional food safety practices.

How Are Optical Sensors Transforming Food Contamination Detection?

Optical sensors work by pairing light-responsive detectors with biomolecular recognition elements like antibodies, DNA probes, or bacteriophages to confer target specificity. Binding the analyte produces measurable photonic signals such as fluorescence intensity, wavelength shifts, or light scattering. Optical sensors translate these optical outputs into electronic data for rapid contaminant quantification and identification.

Optical sensors revolutionize food safety by transforming contaminant detection with game-changing advantages:

Rapid Analysis

Optical sensing techniques, such as fluorescence quenching and surface plasmon resonance (SPR), offer exceptional assay speed. Optical immunosensors, for instance, can rapidly detect multiple pathogens within minutes, significantly improving the days required for microbial culture. This real-time analysis capability enables the prompt identification of contaminated products before reaching consumers.

High Sensitivity

Optical sensors consistently achieve detection limits below 100 cells/mL for bacteria and parts-per-billion for chemical hazards. This ultra-sensitivity aligns with stringent regulatory testing requirements, ensuring the reliability of food safety assessments.

Quality control food safety inspector working in a laboratory

Image Credit: Microgen/Shutterstock.com

Portability and Automation

Compact, lightweight optical sensors are ideal for on-site food analysis. Integrated with handheld devices and smartphones, they enable swift in-field diagnostics, minimizing delays and contamination risks linked to off-site laboratory testing.

These sensors seamlessly integrate with microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip modules, automating sample handling and analysis. Paired with wireless data transmission, they swiftly deliver centralized contamination alerts, boosting the efficiency and reliability of food safety monitoring.

Multiplexing

Optical sensors excel in multiplexing, allowing simultaneous differentiation of signals from multiple regions. This capability enables high-throughput parallel detection, meaning a single test can screen for numerous pathogens, toxins, and chemical residues. This multiplexing capability maximizes productivity and enhances the efficiency of risk profiling in food safety assessments.

Dual-Mode Assays for Enhanced Accuracy and Reliability

The dual-mode sensor assay with self-validation and self-correction emerges as an advanced platform for food contamination analysis, generating two independent optical signals triggered by the target synchronizations.

Unlike measuring the same sample using different methods, dual-mode assays provide independent signals, preventing interference and ensuring data accuracy, reliability, and diversity of detection. This strategy widens the analyte detection range, compensates for limitations in single-mode analysis, and has been successfully applied in food safety for detecting contaminants, showcasing a growing trend in enhancing analytical performance in food safety research.

Recent Research and Development

ML-Enhanced Raman Sensor for Detecting Volatile Organic Contaminants

A study published in Optical Waveguide and Laser Sensors II developed a remote fiber-optic Raman sensor for real-time detection of specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with foodborne pathogens. The researchers integrated machine learning algorithms to enhance the extraction of molecular information from Raman spectra, enabling accurate prediction of complex VOC mixtures even at high dilution folds.

Compared to surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS), the remote fiber-optic Raman sensor offered high speed, portability, precise classification of foodborne pathogen VOCs, and direct detection without sample preparation, marking a significant advancement in nondestructive and sensitive food analyte detection.

Portable Swift Salmonella Detection in the U.S. Chicken Industry

The U.S. chicken supply chain faces susceptibility to salmonella contamination, a prominent pathogen linked with chicken and eggs, contributing to foodborne illnesses. A collaborative research team led by the University of Missouri is developing multiple-sensor technology to rapidly detect salmonella contamination in the chicken supply chain.

The optical sensor being tested yields results within 10 minutes, potentially even faster. The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on developing portable sensors for rapid contamination detection, aiming to improve food safety by integrating sensor results with data on food production, animal health, and geospatial information.

Concluding Remarks

The widespread adoption of optical biosensors throughout the food chain promises to significantly advance public health and food security worldwide. With further development, optical sensing could cement itself as the new gold standard for food contaminant detection, ushering in a new era of safety and transparency in our food supply.

Continue Reading: The Benefits of Using Optical Sensors in Chemical Analysis

References and Further Reading

Chen, H., et al. (2021). Nanomaterials as optical sensors for application in rapid detection of food contaminants, quality and authenticity. Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical329, p. 129135. doi.org/10.1016/j.snb.2020.129135

Idil, N., et al. (2023). Recent Advances in Optical Sensing for the Detection of Microbial Contaminants. Micromachines14(9), p. 1668. doi.org/10.3390/mi14091668

Kourti, D., et al. (2023). Optical Immunosensors for Bacteria Detection in Food Matrices. Chemosensors, 11(8), p. 430. doi.org/10.3390/chemosensors11080430

Schmid, E. (2023). America's chicken supply chain is vulnerable to salmonella. Researchers think they have a fix. [Online]. Available at: https://www.iowapublicradio.org/agriculture/2023-08-21/americas-chicken-supply-chain-is-vulnerable-to-salmonella-researchers-think-they-have-a-fix

Sun, R., et al. (2023). Recent advances in integrated dual-mode optical sensors for food safety detection. Trends in Food Science & Technology. doi.org/10.1016/j.tifs.2023.03.013

Zhang, B., et al. (2023). A remote fiber optic Raman sensor for rapid and nondestructive foodborne pathogen detection. In Optical Waveguide and Laser Sensors II (Vol. 12532, pp. 178-184). SPIE. doi.org/10.1117/12.2661228

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Owais Ali

Written by

Owais Ali

NEBOSH certified Mechanical Engineer with 3 years of experience as a technical writer and editor. Owais is interested in occupational health and safety, computer hardware, industrial and mobile robotics. During his academic career, Owais worked on several research projects regarding mobile robots, notably the Autonomous Fire Fighting Mobile Robot. The designed mobile robot could navigate, detect and extinguish fire autonomously. Arduino Uno was used as the microcontroller to control the flame sensors' input and output of the flame extinguisher. Apart from his professional life, Owais is an avid book reader and a huge computer technology enthusiast and likes to keep himself updated regarding developments in the computer industry.

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