Next to the Star Trek transporter, which could free us from both traffic jams and airport security lines, the Star Fleet tool we most need now is the tricorder.


We all remember the hand-held device that could scan, analyze and record, telling Captain Kirk in seconds about any new substance the Trekkers happened across on a distant planet. 

The very name of the device came from its three primary scanning functions — geological, meteorological and biological.   

There were even medical and engineering upgrades to the standard tricorder.

The X Prize Foundation is offering a $10 million prize to anyone who invents a real life version of the tricorder, the Huffington Post reported late last month.

Huffpo quoted Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X-Prize, as saying such a device would “empower the consumer.”

It certainly would empower the consumer when it comes to food safety, would it not?

All those parents hyped up about arsenic in apple juice could just run a sample from their own bottle under the scanner and find out if it contains less than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic or not.

As long as it was not any bigger than a large microwave, we’d readily accept a larger box version of the tricorder just to get started.  TV crime labs must already have working models of these devices, printing out reports on stomach contents or the results from environmental swabs.

With one of these devices in every kitchen, we could take a half dozen hamburger patties and run them through a test for all strains of pathogenic E. coli.  If they test positive, we could mail them to the American Meat Institute for further analysis.  

We want our tricorder to be able to tell if the food we are testing really is organic or if it contains any ingredients from genetically modified organisms.  Used widely, this device would change what we eat and it would dramatically change the food industry.

Until the X-Prize is awarded, we will have to manage to get along without it.  It is inevitable, however, that technology will be developed to tell us what we really want to know.

People want to know what they are eating and drinking, and we all pretty much know that right now we do not know enough. Yes, you can read nutrition and ingredient labels, but then what?

How can parents not be confused when they read about arsenic, lead and orange juice chemicals from Brazil?  They are told 10 ppb is the limit for arsenic in drinking water, 5 ppb for bottled water, but 23 ppb is OK for apple juice. Excuse me?

Almost everyone in the West has consumed more arsenic from water than the presently allowed levels. In the decade since EPA lowered the limit from 50 ppb to 10 ppb, and came through with a boatload of federal money for communities to improve water treatment, our exposure in many cases has been cut to zero.

So while I might be among those who don’t worry about a little arsenic, I understand why many others do.  They do not want to hear someone from FDA say something that can cause harm is “generally safe.” They want to know how to avoid it. Period.

So whether it is arsenic or lead or various chemicals, the faster we empower consumers to do their own testing the better.

That day might be far in the future, but if I were in the food industry, I’d plan on it happening tomorrow and adjust my transparency practices accordingly. We are watching you now and we are only going to get better.

  • ken

    The dose makes the poison, thankfully I am not nearly old enough to have been the first person to say that but it holds as true today as when Paracelsus was credited with first saying it in the 1500s. What’s that got to do with apple juice? I don’t like to drink plain water and I love fresh pressed apple juice, but I still drink a thousand times more water every year than I do apple juice. So shouldn’t the limit for arsenic in water be 1/1000th of the limit in apple juice? Strictly speaking time is also a critical factor 1 mg a day for a hundred years is unlikely to injure anyone(we don’t know for certain, that type of testing is practically speaking impossible) Whereas taken at once it’s approaching lethal for me and almost certainly for an infant. Am I saying there is no need for a limit certainly not, but it should be set based on realistic expectations using the best medical data we’ve got not on a blind comparison to a bottled water standard that was most likely set using data from animal studies that almost never translate with 100% accuracy to humans.

  • Paul L. Knechtges

    In the Dept. of Defense, we’ve talked about the elusive “Tricorder” for decades, but reality is a tougher problem to solve. Certainly, financial rewards and the marketplace provide powerful incentives to transform science and technology into products. However, besides the numerous scientific hurdles involved with developing new testing technologies, the engineering development and fielding phases are often more daunting. We managed an Army Science and Technology Objective for several years (Paul L. Knechtges, Thomas P. Gargan II and William D. Burrows, “Science and technology objective (STO) to develop tests for detecting microbial and chemical contaminants in food and water”, Proc. SPIE 4575, 1 (2002); doi:10.1117/12.456908), but the developers with the most promising technologies refused our food/water testing funds in lieu of more lucrative markets, i.e., clinical testing.
    Additionally, many in the public feel that food testing is the panacea for food contamination problems. In reality, food testing is only part of an overall integrated food safety strategy. Shaun Kennedy addressed this best in an issue of Science magazine (Shaun Kennedy, “Why Can’t We Test Our Way to Absolute Food Safety?”, Science 12 December 2008: Vol. 322 no. 5908 pp. 1641-1643; DOI: 10.1126/science.1163867).

  • M. “Mike” Mychajlonka, Ph. D.

    That date is not far into the future. It is coming right soon. It is coming here, not to a galaxy far away.
    There is little doubt that consumers need empowerment. Some of their politicians tell them that their food is so safe that the regulatory agencies concerned with food safety can be de-funded without and adverse consequences. At least, when experimental medical procedures are offered to patients, those consumers have the right to make an informed decision and the option to opt-out. What is next, release forms next to the bins of cantaloupe (or the canned tuna fish) in the supermarket?
    Food Safety Analysis, LLC will shortly offer testing of food samples for: Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Lead and Mercury. This testing will be performed with state of the art equipment and standard methods. These results will also be affordable because consumers may also elect to participate in a cost-sharing scheme that will bring the out-of-pocket cost per consumer to $5 per test.
    I will be the first to admit that a tricorder would be a far more elegant solution. Although, even after a tricorder has been invented, how long will the product development take before it may be purchased for a consumer-friendly price, say, $59.99 at the Apple Store?
    Until someone claims that ten million dollar prize, consumers will at soon have a quality and affordable, albeit slow, option for testing selected heavy metal content of their foods.

  • Chuk

    GRAS, Generally safe? Isn’t the flip side of those two coins “might not be safe.” And I hadn’t realized the widely differing acceptable limits of arsenic in liquids (10 ppb is the limit for arsenic in drinking water, 5 ppb for bottled water, but 23 ppb is OK for apple juice). Do those numbers mean the Bottled Water Association lobbyists were more effective than the ‘drinking water’ lobbyists? And is there research that shows 23ppb in orange juice is ok? Maybe the more acidic juice helps eliminate arsenic (general note of sarcasm there).