Unfortunately, Europe is no stranger to food scandals. Such incidents not only impact on public health, but also have an effect on consumer confidence. This can lead to massive economic costs, job losses and damage to the reputation of the European agri-food industry. Testing is of course in place, but as HMCS project coordinator and Managing Director at Next Generation (NG) Sensors, Sarfaraz Syed, explains: “Current high-end screening methods are laboratory-based, time consuming (they can take 5-12 days) and expensive. Costs can run to around EUR 200 an hour. By the time results are back, the food is already in the processing stage or on supermarket shelves.” The Handheld Molecular Contaminants Scanner (HMCS), developed by NG Sensors, with support from the EU, enables on-the-spot sampling and testing, using mass spectrometry sensors and blockchain technology. The scanner is portable and can be attached to a truck, an industrial unit or carried by hand.
A new generation of portable scanners
The biggest technical challenge the project faced was to make the device portable and capable of measuring quickly and accurately. Conventionally, these devices are made with stainless steel and are extremely heavy. “We wanted to make a portable device without shrinking its size, as a smaller size results in decreased performance,” says Syed. The team first tried to use innovative, lightweight plastic materials and technologies like 3D printing to make the device lighter. But the brittle nature of plastic was not ideal for field applications. NG Sensors then collaborated with a start-up from Brightlands Chemelot Campus and developed mass spectrometer components using new composite materials. This results in a system that is four times lighter than stainless steel and twice as resistant to wear and tear. This enables extremely low weight without compromising the performance. Syed describes the process: “When the device comes into contact with the sample, it scans for contaminants. Results are instantaneous. Chemical signatures and the concentration of harmful substances, or chemicals of interest, are all indicated." The device is battery operated and connected to the user’s smartphone.
To help testers keep an eye on possible sources of fraud or lapses in food safety, HMCS will also log the resulting file onto blockchain: “The advantage of using blockchain servers instead of the regular cloud is that the measured log file can get stored at multiple servers securely so data cannot be tampered with. Also, blockchain makes traceability extremely easy as every measurement gets saved as a transaction with a ‘time/place and by whom’ stamp,” explains Syed. This means food safety risks from known contaminants can be prevented in real time. If an issue with a newly found contaminant arises in future, it can be traced back to the right sources by searching its chemical signature through the HMCS’ log files. The potential for such a device has already attracted the attention of the agri-food sector. The team has validated their approach with customers such as Friesland Campina, PHW group, Food Safety Research – Wageningen, Vion Food Group and the pig farming industry in the Netherlands, to name a few. “The success of this project, the generation of new intellectual property, and a strong business case meant NG Sensors BV was selected by the StartLife accelerator programme, founded by Wageningen University, whose reputation in the agri-food sector is significant. StartLife is also partnered by companies such as Unilever, LIDL and the PHW group,” Syed says proudly.
HMCS, food fraud, food quality, food safety, mass spectrometer, on-the-spot sampling, chemical signatures, blockchain