These past weeks, I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel around the state of Colorado (USA) as a prologue to my first international oral presentation at the AOAC in Denver. During this time I have explored and hiked in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Although of course the natural beauty of this place was astounding; for me the most remarkable feature was the extreme sense of isolation on some trails. After witnessing the difficulties experienced by the emergency services in getting help for injured hikers, even at the lower altitudes, I started thinking about just how significant a food safety related issue could be at these elevations. With no quick access to hospitals, an allergic response which could be easily treated in the city could become a serious threat to life in the mountains. The recommended equipment for hiking/camping in the Rockies include (but is not limited to): Multi-tool, first-aid kits, smartphone (with GPS), oxygen tanks, map, compass, water bottle, trail-mix (containing peanuts and multiple types of tree-nuts!), shelter etc. What is interesting about this, is that a smartphone is one of the main things recommended. And as we know – a smartphone is always more than just a phone… It seems obvious that an ideal market for consumer focused food allergen/safety testing would be the camping/hiking community.
(Me at 12,000 ft – where I first started to consider the dangerous implications of food safety at elevation)
There are a number of reasons for this, so let’s break them down. (1) Hikers/campers are already comfortable using a range of travel equipment that everyday consumers might not be exposed to. Hikers/campers regularly use immunochromatographic (lateral flow/pH) strips to test water purity before/following purification with tablets*. This not only means that this group are accustomed to using lateral flow, but also that they are capable of performing basic experiments such as water filtering and purification. Therefore, they should also be able to carry out basic extraction and filtering of food products with proper instruction.
(Although Dream Lake’s crystal clear waters may look like an appealing drink – hikers would need to perform water quality test strips to determine water safety and treatment plan)
(2) Alongside being able to carry out basic experiments, a further equipment requirement is for a multi-tool. This means that it would be perfectly appropriate to provide instructions such as: pierce buffer container with sharp instrument from multi-tool and transfer buffer to food. (3) Hikers/campers like miniaturised portable safety tools (e.g. clip on oxygen tanks) so would be more likely to purchase such a test kit in the first place. (4) A tree-nut/peanut allergic hiker/camper could be at particularly high risk of accidental allergen exposure. I say that hikers/campers are at higher risk to nut exposure due to the popularity of ‘trail-mix’. If you don’t know, trail mix is a snack mix consisting of granola, tree-nuts, peanuts, dried fruit and chocolate developed as a food to be taken along on (surprisingly…) TRAILS!. Of course I would agree that a tree-nut allergic individual should steer clear of trail mix – it’s not worth the risk right? But what about trail mix which is marketed as nut free? I was surprised to see the amount of ‘nut-free’ or ‘peanut-free’ mixes on sale – of course each with its own disclaimer of ‘prepared in a factory that uses nuts/peanuts’. Therefore the camping/hiking community could be the ideal group for FoodSmartphone, mountain edition (MountainSmartphone).
Of course, whether the developed FoodSmartphone assays would easily still work at high altitude and low temperatures is still to be determined…
(Elk work well at high altitude/low temperature – but what would need to change for the FoodSmartphone assays to work well in these conditions?)
Until next time,
* As well as this proving that hikers/campers could carry out basic experiments, it also raises an interesting topic of developing a smartphone interface for these water purity strips so that users can keep a log of water sources tested and can inform relevant stakeholders (e.g. park rangers) with a spatiotemporal map of water sources which are relatively ‘clean’ or contaminated.