No food-borne illness induces consumer fear like Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE a.k.a. "Mad Cow Disease"). The beef industry in particular has gone to great lengths to take preventative steps against the introduction of BSE into U.S. herds. A big problem in controlling BSE is that it’s difficult to detect. The only detection method currently available involves the slaughter of a suspect animal and a series of not very reliable tests.

Now comes word that researchers at Cornell University have devised a “tuning fork” method that may detect BSE at the prion level:

Harold Craighead and colleagues at Cornell University have developed nanoscale resonators, which are tiny devices that function like tuning forks by changing pitch with increased mass. When prions bind to the resonator’s silicon sensor, it changes the vibrational resonant frequency of the device. In experimental trials, the sensor detected prions at concentrations as low as two nanograms per milliliter, the smallest levels measured to date.

Though still a while away from practical application, the technology may have dramatic effects on the ability to ensure the safety of the nation’s beef supply. The BSE “tuning fork” is a good example of yet another new technology industry that the government can use to ensure food safety and consumer confidence.

Farming and safe handling practices alone cannot provide the level of assurance that consumers demand in their food supply. Tuning fork, irradiation, and better bacteria detection are all vital tools that industry, government, and consumers need to embrace.