By Alvin Benn
Those old enough to remember comic strip detective Dick Tracy can still recall an unusual device that allowed him to signal for backup when he needed it.
It was a two-way wristwatch radio and Tracy fans couldn’t get over the invention—something subsequently updated to include a small TV screen and then a computer.
Cellular telephones are even smaller than what Tracy used and the evolution of communication devices has now found its way into food safety.
The latest device is being developed right now in Alabama and, when completed, is expected to help protect American consumers from potentially dangerous diseases inside processed foods.
It’s a chip that can be placed in the packaging of chicken, fish and meat to monitor the health of the product working its way from the farm to fridge.
One of the places where the chip is being developed is Auburn University (AU). A finished product could be in place within the next decade.
A computer chip monitoring a de-feathered chicken may seem farfetched, but Dick Tracy’s wristwatch radio had the country buzzing when Tracy’s comic strip creator, Chester Gould, unveiled it six decades ago.
The leader of the AU project is Professor Bryan Chin, who is chairman of the University’s Materials Engineering Program. Chin has a 20-year career at Auburn.
Chin’s interest in radio-frequency identification tags and adaptive sensors is well known throughout the research community involved in the food safety program.
"Our research is different from others because we take an engineering approach," said Chin. "What we do is aimed at the entire food system, using sensor technology and information technology to solve our food problems."
What Chin’s group is focusing on is the entire food chain and how detection can help guarantee items moving through the system will be safe for consumption.
"The food chain basically consists of food production which can be foreign or domestic," Chin said. "It begins at the processing plant and ends on the dinner table."
Much can happen in between and that is why the AU research group is working hard on sensor devices to sound alarms if something out of the ordinary happens.
"It’s our job to identify where the problem occurs," he said. "When radio frequency chips are developed and implemented, we will have taken a major step in ensuring healthy food for consumers."
Chin said the stamp-sized chips are to be used in poultry, fish or meat as they move along the processing chain. If a problem is detected, a warning will be sounded to remove the identified food item or see the problem is corrected.
"These chips will contain information as to where the food item came from and how we can contact those involved in their production," said Chin.
Chin said he and scientists working with him envision the sensor chips will be molded into the packaging that comes with the product.
"For instance, in monitoring milk, the sensor tag would be injection molded into the plastic container and be in contact with the milk from the inside of the container," he said.
For meat products, the final sensor tag would be molded into the plastic tray to determine the bacterial count. For fruits and vegetables, the sensor would be mounted into the plastic wrap.
"When the wrapping on these products is removed, the sensor tag would be disposed of along with the packaging," said Chin. "We have worked with the packaging companies on this concept and it seems okay with them."
Auburn University has been actively involved in food safety concerns since 1999 when the school commissioned and designated the Detection and Food Safety Center.
The designation as a University Peak of Excellence project paved the way for state funding to help launch an engineering approach to identify and study the problem.
Researchers from five AU colleges - Agriculture, Engineering, Human Sciences, Science and Mathematics, and Veterinary Medicine - have been working on ways to quickly spot food safety contamination.
Using the latest biosensor technology to augment existing identification advances, AU unit’s goal is to eliminate or significantly reduce the threat of food-borne bacteria, pathogens and toxins from reaching supper tables around the country.
With the 2008 Olympics just around the corner, concerns about food safety in China continue to grow, especially since a series of recalls of Chinese-produced products.
Another Auburn University scientist, Yifen Wang, has been playing a key role in addressing those concerns. Wang was one of 15 food safety authorities named to a Beijing Olympics food security organization two years ago.
Wang’s appointment didn’t cause much of a ripple at the time, but outrage around the world over the recalls of contaminated Chinese food items put him into an international spotlight.
Selected because of his fluency of English and Chinese as well as his scientific achievements, Wang has been working hard since his appointment.
One of four U.S. representatives on the panel, Wang is the board’s designated liaison for the English-speaking members. Other food safety authorities on the panel are from China, Australia, the European Union and the World Health Organization.
The mission of Wang’s group is to write a manual for the rigorous food safety program that will be put in place for the two-week-long Olympic spectacular.
Development of global positioning systems will be utilized at the Games in order to track all food products. Wang was instrumental in adoption of radio frequency identification technology used in the GPS program.
"There is great pressure on us to ensure all foods that enter the athletes’ village, media villages, main press center and international broadcasting center at the Games are safe," said Wang. "We are confident the security program that has been established is a very good, highly effective system."
The Associated Press reported Chinese officials are overseeing a program in which all food entering the Olympic Village and other facilities will be given a food safety logistics code.
Most athletes eat special diets provided by their own team officials, but Olympic organizers have also promised to test food samples on mice, according to the state-run newspaper, the China Daily.
Concern over Chinese products surfaced earlier in the year when a Chinese-made pet ingredient was linked to the deaths of cats and dogs in North America. Since that time, Chinese goods ranging from toothpaste to tires and toys have been banned or recalled around the world.
As Wang moves forward on his part in ensuring the safety of food at the Olympics, U.S. health officials have had their hands full trying to ensure the safety of food on the home front.
In October, ConAgra Foods - one of the largest food processors in the country - found itself in the middle of another recall. Instead of peanut butter, it was its Banquet pot pies.
ConAgra voluntarily stopped production at its Missouri plant where the pot pies are made after health officials said they may be linked to more than 100 cases of salmonella in 30 states.
The company insisted its chicken and turkey pies are safe if they are cooked properly. Federal officials issued the warning to consumers about what it felt was a link between the salmonella cases and the pot pies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been tracking reports of the salmonella cases for a week. Most had been reported in four states - Georgia, Wisconsin, Missouri and Pennsylvania.
Earlier in the year, ConAgra had to recall all of its peanut butter made at a plant in South Georgia because it had been linked to a different salmonella outbreak.
Food safety concerns are hardly new in the United States. In 1862, President Lincoln founded the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and, from that, came what the country has today.
Individual states tried their best to cope with the problem of livestock diseases, but they couldn’t handle it. The outcry was heard in Washington as the states sought help on the national level.
Two decades after Lincoln established the USDA, President Chester Arthur created the Bureau of Animal Industry which was the forerunner of the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Chin and other AU scientists involved in the food safety program are extensions of what Lincoln started by establishing the USDA.
"It could take seven or 10 years to develop a food sensor program, but we’re well on the way to doing just that," said Chin.
When that happens, Auburn University’s scientific community will have added another feather in its cap of achievements.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.