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Engineering Professor Helps Keep Soldiers’ Meals Safe

Sensor Can Rapidly Detect Toxins in Food Supply

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U.S. Army soldiers load boxes of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) onto a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Keeping American soldiers strong and well nourished in the field has always been a top priority of the U.S. military. From the early “meat-and-potato” subsistence during the Civil War through the two World Wars and the Korean War, the soldiers’ meals have evolved into today’s technologically advanced combat ration systems, such as the Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs.

One of the researchers at the forefront of this effort in making the military food supply safer and more secure is chemical engineering Assoc. Prof. Sanjeev K. Manohar.

“A major threat to U.S. personnel stationed overseas is the high levels of toxins that may be present in the local food supply as a result of unregulated pesticide use and the prevalence of toxic industrial chemicals and heavy metals in the environment,” says Manohar, who is associate dean of the Francis College of Engineering.

“We need rapid analytical methods that are capable of identifying these threats in food at levels that exceed military exposure guidelines,” he says.

Working jointly with Triton Systems Inc., Manohar and his graduate students are addressing the needs of the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research by developing a food sample preparation and sensor-measurement process that can quickly detect toxic compounds and other harmful contaminants.

Triton Systems, a Chelmsford-based company that specializes in developing advanced materials, technologies, products and services for homeland security, military logistics, electronics and medical diagnostics, provided funding for the study.

“Our proposed preparation process uses only standard, relatively inexpensive equipment that is portable in the field,” says Manohar. “Preparation takes about 30 minutes and the sensor can give results in just a few minutes.”

He says the system has been tested on ground beef, milk and bread and it was able to detect trace amounts of arsenic, cyanide and methamidophos, an organophosphate insecticide.

“All of the sensor’s components are environmentally robust, have stable shelf lives and can be manufactured economically,” says Manohar.