New packaging tracks if food is still safe to eat after "sell by" date

3/5/2013

Every year, Americans throw away millions of tons of still-edible food because the "best before" or “sell by” date has passed. But a team of scientists has devised an inexpensive new packaging device to test whether such foods are still safe to eat that could soon make its way to grocery stores shelves.

The device — developed by researchers with the Eindhoven University of Technology, Universite di Catania, CEA-Liten, and STMicroelectronics — utilizes a plastic sensor circuit that assesses the contents of food packages for freshness.

The low-cost plastic circuits, unveiled at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco last month, have other potential uses, such as evaluating the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals.

The sensors are designed to evaluate acidity levels, temperature, and other factors to determine a product’s freshness and could be read with a scanner or mobile phone.

"In principle that's all already possible, using standard silicon [sensors],” said researcher Eugenio Cantatore of Eindhoven University. “The only problem is they're too expensive. They easily cost 10 cents. And that cost is too much for a one … bag of crisps.

“We're now developing electronic devices that are made from plastic rather than silicon. The advantage is you can easily include these plastic sensors in plastic packaging."

Cantatore said the plastic sensors developed by the scientific team can be printed on all kinds of flexible surfaces and cost less than one cent to make.

Such sensors could reduce the food waste generated needlessly each year and also help reduce the risk of food poisoning, the researchers said. Consumers and businesses in developed countries throw away more than 220 pounds of food per person per year, mainly because the expiration date on the packaging has passed, they noted.


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