30 November 2001

Sniffer has nose for early storage woes

AN electronic nose for sniffing out grain store problems before they become serious is one of the latest fruits of HGCA-funded research.

The gadget detects fungi by their tell-tale odours long before they can be seen with the naked eye or grain starts smelling musty. It could help ease disease control and reduce the risk of mycotoxin contamination.

The idea stems from an EU project to find an easier way to detect taints in Parma ham. Now the equipment has been developed with £300,000 of funding at the West of England Uni-versity and Campden and Chorley-wood Food Research Association.

At its heart is a 2mm square ceramic chip. Its electrical conductivity varies according to the smells given off when infected grain is heated.

Each fungus emits a specific combination of volatile organic compounds, as unique as a fingerprint, says the universitys Peter Spencer-Phillips. Detecting fungi early means remedial action can be taken in good time. Furthermore, some of the mycotoxin-producing fungi are particularly difficult to detect in any other way.

Main use of the sniffer is likely to be at merchant and end-user intakes. In recent blind tests it detected all the samples that would have been rejected using standard procedures, plus a few more.

A smaller version for use on farms may be developed. Interest is already being shown in a version to spot soft rots in potato stores, Dr Spencer-Phillips notes. "The challenge is to get the price down." &#42

GRAIN SNIFFER

&#8226 Electronic nose for fungal smells.

&#8226 Pinpointing potential poisons.

&#8226 Commercial tests promising.

&#8226 Price barrier for on-farm tool?

A nose for nasty fungi…. Peter Spencer-Phillips demonstrates the super-sensitive electronic nose for detecting grain store moulds earlier than ever before.