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OM in the News: Molecular Sensors Revolutionize Quality Control

December 20, 2015
A chocolate bar undergoing testing with SCiO technology to detect fake or mislabeled ingredients

A chocolate bar undergoing testing with SCiO technology to detect fake or mislabeled ingredients

The recent food outbreaks of norovirus at Chipotle Mexican Grill are a reminder that one in six people in the U.S. experience food poisoning every year, and 128,000 are hospitalized for it. Add to that all the other hazards in our food—carcinogens, pesticides, mislabeling of everything from seafood to meatballs—and you realize that in the U.S., the price of cheap and bountiful food is an array of unsavory compromises. “But what if you could know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth, down to the last bite? What if we all had the ability to inspect our food in a way previously accessible only to chemists with costly laboratories”, asks The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 14, 2015)?

The $250 Nima from 6SensorLabs is an organic-chemistry lab small enough to carry in your pocket, and able detecting gluten in foods at minuscule concentrations, as little as 20 parts per million. In the near future, Nima will recognize all manner of proteins—including ones that would allow it to recognize bacterial contaminants such as E. coli and salmonella. Nima is typical of a new breed of sensors that are cheap and fast enough to add more layers of inspection to our food system, for suppliers, restaurants and even individual consumers.

Another such technology, by Safe Catch, offers the world’s lowest mercury-contaminated canned tuna fish. This process allows Safe Catch to inspect every single fish as soon as it comes off the boat, rather than sampling just a small percentage of them. Then there is SCiO from Consumer Physics of Israel, which can identify substances by measuring the spectrum of light they reflect. Its sensor has the advantage of being so small—it is basically a camera technology—that it could be incorporated directly into cellphones. These and similar electronic products will almost certainly create whole new applications, markets and billion-dollar businesses.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why are these new sensors so important to operations managers?
  2. What other applications can you envisage for such products?



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