The future of food safety is being cooked up in a McMaster lab

April 6, 2015
    Drop this pill in a vial of water and you'll quickly know whether or not it's contaminated.

Can special packaging detect E. coli on your chicken?

Can a tiny pill tell you if there are cancer-causing pesticides in your drinking water?

What if the kitchen countertop could repel bacteria?

These are the sorts of questions facing researchers at McMaster’s Biointerfaces Institute.

Officially opened in April 2013, the $22M facility allows scientists to test millions of combinations of biological agents and complex surfaces, in an effort to find solutions to some of humanity’s most pressing health problems.

Those solutions so far include water-testing technology embedded in pills made with the same material as dissolvable breath freshening strips.

Want to know if a well is contaminated? Drop a pill in a vial of water, shake and look for a change in colour.

Read: Inkjet printer could produce simple tool to identify infectious disease, food contaminants 

The Institute may also help create a future in which eating is safer, by developing bacteria-repelling fridge handles and countertops, or meat packaging that changes colour in the presence of bacteria.

According to the World Health Organization, unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemicals can cause more than 200 diseases – ranging from diarrhea to cancer.

The WHO has made food safety the focus of this year’s World Health Day on April 7.

The organization says there were an estimated 582 million cases of 22 different foodborne diseases in 2010, responsible for more than 350,000 deaths.

Areas hardest hit by such diseases include Africa and Southeast Asia.

The Biointerfaces Institute’s work isn’t limited to the kitchen. Other potential applications for technology tested there include bandages that help heal wounds, home test kits for cholesterol and contact lenses that rarely need changing.