UK – Researchers at Imperial College London have developed high-tech spoilage detectors set to replace the traditional ‘use-by’ dates on food labels in a bid to cut on food waste.

The technology uses paper-based sensors (“paper-based electrical gas sensors- PEGS) that can be printed onto food packaging to detect spoilage gases like ammonia and trimethylamine in meat and fish products.

The freshness devices are described as superior indicators of freshness and edibility to use-by data system.

The sensor data can be read by smartphones, enabling consumers to easily determine whether a food product is safe to consume.

The technology can also be used in other applications such as sensing chemicals in agriculture and air quality or detecting disease markers in a person’s breath.

According to the researchers, the technology is eco-friendly and safe to use in food packaging, and said to be an environmentally safe, biodegradable and non-toxic solution.

It is set to be available in the UK in the next three years, with a goal to reduce food waste as well as help reduce food poisoning due to poor storage.

Curbing food waste

According to Imperial College London, one in three UK consumers throw away food solely because it reaches the use-by date even though 60% (4.2 million tonnes) of the £12.5 billion-worth of food thrown away each year is safe to eat.

The research notes that there are no reliable alternatives to ‘use-by’ dates or ‘sniff tests’ which can provide objective feedback on food freshness and safety.

Though they are the most commonly, if not only used methods to ensure food safety, use-by dates do not take storage and processing conditions of specific food items into account.

Thus, they can lead to safe and edible food being thrown away by retailers and consumers, to some extend also leading to plastic pollution.

“Although they’re designed to keep us safe, use-by dates can lead to edible food being thrown away,” said Dr. Firat Güder of Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, lead author of the research.

“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.

“Citizens want to be confident that their food is safe to eat, and to avoid throwing food away unnecessarily because they are not able to judge its safety.”

Use of food spoilage sensors is limited to pricing, deemed too expensive or too difficult to interpret by consumers.

The PEGS technology comes in to address such challenges, as the devices are cheaper to produce and easier to interpret with electrical readings.