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Reducing downtime and safety risks in food manufacturing

The need

It is estimated that 1–2% of adults and 5–8% of children in the UK have some sort of food allergy – this equates to around 2 million people. Trace quantities of allergens, such as milk, in food processing plants at very low concentrations can trigger an immune response in allergic individuals including, in serious cases, anaphylactic shock.

As a result, where there is a possibility of cross-contamination, food producers are obliged to label products or recall incorrectly labelled products and refund customers, costing millions for businesses. The process is time-consuming, damaging to a company's reputation and expensive but essential to public health.

This is a growing issue for businesses, principally due to the lack of monitoring systems capable of rapid and accurate measurement of allergen levels in foods. Currently, manufacturers must send off samples for testing, meaning production must be halted, and increasing switchover times between products.

The impact

We are working with Unilever; Prognomics, a spin-out of Swansea University; and the University of Cambridge, to develop an in situ graphene allergen sensor to limit the impact of downtime in food processing. The collaboration shows what could be possible with the development an easy-to-use sensor capable of providing timely information.

The sensor offers significant benefits to the manufacturing industry. By reducing cleaning times and waste, as well as energy and water consumption, the sensor could significantly increase manufacturing efficiency for food producers. It will also improve process monitoring with specific in situ measurement that will provide improved quality assurance – enabling potential issues to be predicted and rectified before they halt production or cause a safety risk for consumers.