New sensor detects spoiled meat

3 APL scientists find nickel compound sniffs key molecules

Patent is sought

July 20, 2000|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

With plans to enhance expiration dating, a team of scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel is working on a device that can determine when meat has started to spoil.

The three scientists say their product could reduce the number of cases of food poisoning if meat packagers and consumers use it to monitor whether meat they buy or store at home has gone bad.

Once it is fully developed, the invention will be a thin piece of plastic that consumers can use to easily spot if the meat has started to go bad. One idea is to make the device a strip on the wrapping of the meat package. Another is to make it part of the wrapping.

It could also be used by the military to monitor MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) and other stored meat.

"The production of meat is a big, long industrial process," said Craig Kelly, an inorganic chemist. "There are a lot of points where meat can become contaminated."

Kelly, 35, has been working to develop the product for more than a year with physical chemist Manuel Uy, 61, and analytical chemist George Murray, 47.

The technology uses a nickel compound to detect putrescine and cadaverine, the molecules generated by bacteria during meat spoilage. Those molecules contribute to the odor that emanates from spoiled meat, and the scientists are aiming to make the nickel compound in their product more sensitive than the human nose.

Last month, the sensor won APL's first Invention of the Year award, which comes with a $2,500 cash prize to be split among the three inventors, all of whom live in Howard County. A panel of independent judges - including representatives from business and industry, technology transfer professionals and intellectual property attorneys - chose the winners from a group of 83 nominees.

The three scientists, who recently added organic chemist David Lawrence to their team, have applied for a patent for their product and say the sensor could be complete within a year and on the market within two to five years.

Here's how the invention works: As meat spoils, the bacteria release enzymes that break down the protein into more than 20 amino acids. Two of those amino acids are then broken down into putrescine and cadaverine, which can be detected by smell or by the technology the APL team is developing.

Because they don't regulate such products and hadn't heard of the sensor being developed by APL, officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food safety and inspection service and from the American Meat Institute Foundation declined to comment specifically on the sensor and the effects it could have.

"It sounds intriguing; we just need to find out more about the technology and its applications," said James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation. "We're always interested in looking at new technologies that may provide useful benefits to the industry."

Kristin Gray, marketing director for APL's technology transfer office, said the laboratory is talking with three or four companies interested in licensing and marketing the invention, though she did not disclose which companies.

Kelly said the military has also expressed interest in the product, which is being developed through financing from APL.

The development of the idea for the food sensor dates to 1995, when Uy, who has been at APL for 20 years, was working to remove lead from water that seeps into a submarine after it fires a missile. Murray, then a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was at the same time developing a way to remove lead from seawater.

The two agreed to combine their efforts, and Murray joined the team at APL. But as they worked on lead removal, that project led to another - and then another and another. "The minds are always thinking of ways to do something good," Uy said.

In 1996, about a year after a nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subways, the two began developing technology to detect nerve gas. They later began developing a technology to detect explosives, in collaboration with a professor at UMBC.

In 1999, Kelly joined the team, and from there came the movement into technology to detect spoiling food.

The meat project is about a year from being done, the scientists say. Once complete, they are hoping the military will use the sensor and it will later be picked up by the commercial sector.

"The ultimate goal for us," Kelly said, "is to have the functional sensor that's cheap enough to put in every package of meat."

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