Study: This food freshness sensor could oust “use-by” dates
Ready for a game-changing “foodie” alert?
A new technology that accurately detects food spoilage dates could change the way supermarkets sell food, and how consumers buy and dispose of food, at the exact right time.
The technology, called ‘paper-based electrical gas sensors’ (PEGS), detect spoilage gases, such as ammonia and trimethylamine in meat and fish products, to better gauge food and drink freshness.
That’s big news for food and beverage consumers, who tend to get confused over when, exactly, they should toss food and drink stuffs out.
According to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Imperial College London, 33% of U.K.-based consumers do toss out food that’s spoiled and unfit for consumption.
Yet another 60% of consumers jettison food that’s perfectly fit to eat or drink – that’s $12.5 billion (in British pounds) of foodstuffs, researchers say.
Additionally, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans contract food poisoning every year after eating beef, poultry, fish and other meats tainted by food-borne pathogens.
PEGS to the rescue
That’s where PEGS comes in, food science analysts say.
The technology was developed by food science technicians at U.K.-based Imperial College London. Researchers built the sensors “by printing carbon electrodes onto readily available cellulose paper,” ICL reports.
The PEGS sensors are paired with near field communication (NFC) tags — i.e. microchips that can easily be scanned and viewed with a simple smartphone.
According to ICL, testing completed on fish and chicken food packages detected spoilage contaminants in seconds. Analysts say the technology is low cost, with optimal food packaging spoilage detection costing “a fraction of the price” of more traditional food testing products.
In addition, PEGS biodegradable materials are eco-friendly and non-toxic, so they don’t harm the environment and are safe to use in food packaging. The sensors that drive the technology cost only two cents to make, and can easily be displayed by cell phone, giving consumers an easy and efficient way to actually hold their digital device up to the food or drink packaging it’s okay to consume.
The technology is the “first ever commercially-viable food freshness sensors” according to Dr. Firat Guder research director and author, of Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering. Guder also notes the technology could replace the current “use by date” that grocers deploy to check the quality of the food and drink they sell.
“Although they’re designed to keep us safe, use-by dates can lead to edible food being thrown away,” Guder says. “In fact, use-by dates are not completely reliable in terms of safety as people often get sick from foodborne diseases due to poor storage, even when an item is within its use-by date.”
Guder adds that people need to be sure that their food is safe to eat, and to avoid throwing food away unnecessarily because they can’t get the proper timing down.
The PEGS technology, which should be in global supermarkets by 2022, should solve consumer food handling problems. “Our vision is to use PEGS in food packaging to reduce unnecessary food waste and the resulting plastic pollution,” Guder says.
Consumers could use some help on food quality detection
In general, most consumers rely on food expiration dates that have little to do with safety and are only somewhat related to quality, food experts say.
“Expiration date labeling looks different across food packages given that there is no standardization (other than for infant formula),” says Jennifer Kaplan, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Cal. “In reality, they are a manufacturer’s vague estimate of when the product is at its freshest.” Manufacturers typically use conservative freshness dates, and so there is little fear that food will be labeled as fresh beyond its natural freshness, Kaplan notes.
“On the contrary, the problem with freshness labels is that people believe them to be absolute and erroneously dispose of perfectly fresh food,” she says. “The PEGS technology will accurately detect spoilage gasses in meat and fish packages thus eliminating more inaccurate freshness date labels.”
Kaplan points to a survey from Johns Hopkins, about consumer confusion related to food date labels leading to unnecessary discards, increased waste and food safety risks.
“Among survey participants, the research found that 84% discarded food near the package date “at least occasionally” and 37% reported that they “always” or “usually” discard food near the package date,” she says. “Notably, participants between the ages of 18 to 34 were particularly likely to rely on label dates to discard food, and more than half of participants incorrectly thought that date labeling was federally regulated or reported being unsure.”
Kaplan says that PEGS technology has the potential to provide consumers with more accurate information about freshness and therefore reduce the erroneous disposal of
“In reality, it’s in this way that the PEGS technology is going to be a game changer,” she says.
A money saver
Other food industry experts say that consumers should benefit financially from technologies like PEGS.
“If this new technology works well it really could be a real game-changer for consumers’ understanding of food freshness,” says Jenna Coleman, a consumer behavior analyst in the grocery sector and founder of Particular Pantry, a grocery industry educational firm. “There is a tremendous amount of food wasted due to the misunderstanding of food expiration labels and this could save families a lot of money by eliminating unnecessary food waste.”
Plus, the PEGS technology offers a bonus for consumers, and to the planet.
“Food waste is also a big environmental concern so this technology will not only impact consumers and grocery stores but could also benefit the environment,” Coleman says.
Boosting the concept of “edible food”
With food safety a major household issue in global households, PEGS looks like an idea whose time has come.
“Although the food industry — and consumers — are understandably cautious about shelf life, it’s time to embrace technology that could more accurately detect food edibility and reduce food waste and plastic pollution,” Guder says.