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.