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Paranoid about tainted lettuce? There could be an app for that one day

App hopes to detect contaminated food
Developing app hopes to detect contaminated food and drinks 04:34

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are using artificial intelligence in an effort to to create a system that would give consumers control when it comes to avoiding dangerous food-borne illnesses. It could one day enable you to scan lettuce for E.coli, detect lead in water and even determine whether the alcohol you're drinking on vacation is tainted.

The technology is still in its early stages, but the team of young MIT scientists working on it say it could revolutionize the future of food safety, reports CBS News correspondent Nikki Battiste.  

"We hope to be able to build a portable device that a person can take with them when they're trying to buy something from a supermarket or from a farmer's market," said Fadel Adib, the professor leading the project.

Adib envisions the device will be the size of a phone charger and plug into your cellphone. Right now though, it looks like a black piece of foam with green antennae.

According to Adib, the device is pre-programmed to detect specific contaminants in products like milk and alcohol. The device reads signals from a wireless sticker on the food or beverage packaging and transmits the results to a phone app. 

The MIT team envisions the device will be the size of a phone charger and plug into your cellphone. Right now though, it looks like a black piece of foam with green antennae.    CBS News

MIT believes the technology could help people avoid safety hazards such as tainted alcohol, which either kills or blinds hundreds of people every year. The goal is for consumers to one day be able to use the technology to test meals in restaurants and at home.

"You can also envision future smart-fridges that incorporate this technology to detect contaminated food or food spoilage," Adib said.

If the system detects contamination in a product, that information could then be uploaded to an online database, Adib explained. The hope is that the database would be connected to servers that regulatory agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could access.

An estimated 3,000 people die from food-borne illnesses every year and, according to the CDC, food-borne illnesses hospitalize 128,000 Americans annually.

In 2015, Ali Goldman was one of those people.

"When I woke up I was really unaware of where I was. … They had carried me to a mirror because I couldn't walk and I looked in the mirror and didn't know who I was," she said. "I was about 95, 97 pounds."

Goldman had contracted a life-threatening case of E.coli after eating a spinach salad sandwich at a New York café. She spent more than a month in a coma. Now, she said, she lives in "constant fear" of food and hasn't eaten salad in nearly four years. 

Mock-up of what the app would one day look like CBS News

While consumers like Goldman are interested in being able to detect contamination themselves, food safety lawyer Bill Marler hopes grocery stores will use the technology, too.  

"We have great technology now and 48 million Americans still get sick every year," Marler said.  "I see the best use of this kind of technology as sort of before it hits the marketplace, before it goes on a grocery store shelf."

Fadel Adib shares that vision.

"In the near-term, I hope consumers will do it. In the long-term, I hope that it will become so seamless that it will disappear into the environment such that it is in the infrastructure of the grocery store," Adib said.

He hopes the technology could become as mainstream as paying for items with your phone.  
Professor Adib said people could be using this technology within the next five years. He also hopes the system will one day be able to detect sugar levels and calories as well, which could have an impact on people with diabetes or those watching their weight.

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