In June 2019 academics at Imperial College London (ICL) announced a prototype ‘food freshness sensor’ which could go on to replace the traditional ‘use by’ date printing method on fresh meat and fish. The new sensor or PEGS (Paper Based Electrical Gas Sensors) detect trace amounts of gases like ammonia and trimethylamine in meat and fish products, to calculate freshness. The information can be relayed to a customer by smartphone using NFC communication (of the sort used for processing contactless mobile payments).
What’s wrong with a printed use-by date?
The traditional use-by date method is generally a ‘worst case’ calculation made when meat is packaged. It assumes the produce will be transported or stored in sub optimal conditions when in fact, the meat or fish may actually be good for an extra day or two. The inability to accurately give safety information to consumers about their particular piece of meat or fish results in much being discarded. This results in increased food waste, pointless transport emissions and the production of unnecessary packaging materials like plastic. One in three UK consumers throw away food solely because it reaches the use-by date, but an estimated sixty per cent (4.2million tonnes) of the £12.5 billion-worth of food we throw away each year is safe to eat.
Low cost smart packaging sensors
At a production cost of just 2 cents per sensor, the ICL researchers printed carbon electrodes onto readily available cellulose paper. These materials are biodegradable and nontoxic, safely breaking down in the environment and are of course safe to use in food packaging.
There are food spoilage sensors already in existence but they are typically expensive to use, often comprising of up to a quarter of overall packaging costs. Problems in interpreting their information have also been reported. Some think that simple colour-changing sensors may in fact increase food waste as consumers are likely to interpret even the slightest colour change as bad food.
ICL’s new ‘PEGS’ technology aims to address both of these issues, being low cost and easier to read by using readily available technology in the shape of the smartphone. PEGS also function effectively at nearly 100 per cent humidity whereas many sensors struggle above 90 per cent. They also work at room temperature and do not need to be heated, so they consume very low amounts of energy.
2020: a new freshness marketing platform for the ICL sensors
Since 2014 New York based marketing technology company, TPG Rewards, has pioneered and developed NFC chip technology solutions which connect promotional offers on products with consumers. TPG has utilized its NFC based platform to deploy a multitude of nationwide executions in the US for brands such as Kraft, Conagra and Kelloggs at retailers ranging from Walmart to Publix. Having seen the potential for the new freshness sensors announced by Imperial College London, TPG have now developed a ‘Freshness Marketing Platform’ for the sensors off the back of their existing NFC platform offering. Initially the sensors will be available on meat and fish products with future roll-outs eyed in the dairy sector.
Hot day? Suggest a BBQ. Cold Day? Suggest a beef pie
When scanning a freshness sensor with their smartphone a customer will receive the actual expiration date based upon the sensor’s gas readings. In addition potential recipes can be suggested factoring in the time of day and local weather automatically. Hot day? Suggest a BBQ. Cold Day? Suggest a beef pie. Furthermore an algorithm can also display a discount coupon to the customer with the % reduction increasing the closer the product is to the actual expiration date. Yes quite soon even your stewing steak might be connected to the Internet of Things (IoT).
Watch: How they do things at TPG Rewards:
Photographs and diagram © Imperial College London