The Future

Start-ups Are Creating Gadgets to Detect E. Coli and Gluten

Nima's inventors say it can multitask.
Nima’s inventors say it can multitask.

Start-ups that watched food-borne illness after food-borne illness erupt this year — Chipotle’s burrito woes, bad bottled water — are now scrambling to invent portable devices that can quickly say if that Costco chicken salad does in fact have E. coli.

The Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims talked to several such companies about a future in which diners can inspect food “in a way previously accessible only to chemists with costly laboratories.” One doohickey — the Nima (pictured up top) — is a $250 device that currently does just one thing: scans questionable food for gluten. But maker 6SensorLabs says the two-minute-long analysis could be rejiggered to detect any kind of protein, “including ones that would allow it to recognize bacterial contaminants such as E. coli and salmonella.”

Another tech gadget called C2Sense is tiny and cheap enough that it could be stuck into food packages, where consumers would give it a glance before eating the contents. The version being tested now measures the ripeness of bananas, tomatoes, bags of lettuce, and other produce, but its creators say that it could be fine-tuned to detect spoiled meat or fish.

Other devices, like the proprietary one used by Safe Catch that lets the tuna company inspect mercury levels, might be adapted for novel uses down the road, too. Stomach flu has had a pretty good run lately — 120 multistate outbreaks from 2010 to 2014, the Times says today — but now that the problem is on the radar of the Silicon Valley tech crowd, who’ve already mastered a way to subsist without eating food, its days are clearly numbered.


Race to Invent Portable Bacteria Dectectors