Within the European Union we throw away on average 179 kg of food per person per year. If nothing is done, the trend will increase. In Sweden alone, we throw away a million tons of food waste per year. The EU Parliament has set a target to halve food waste by 2025. According to Sweden’s Environmental Protection Agency savings of SEK 18-28 billion could be achieved if food waste could be reduced by 20 percent by 2015.
The problem is complex and food is discarded in all stages of production, distribution and consumption. Companies in the food chain are well aware of wastage and an example of measures to reduce waste is to produce food from production waste. Here inventiveness is great as in the production of chocolate balls where production waste is be reused. Much is said about production but it is households that account for a large part of the waste of food. Every third bag of groceries carried home is tossed because of passed expiry dates. This is poor management of natural resources, a waste of money and bad for the environment.
Sensor detects temperature and bacterial growth
“The legislation specifies that the food producer label the product with the best before date. Many of us are very careful to follow the specified date, but probably do not think that the label does not take into account several important factors, such as temperature control during transport to the consumer,” says Fredrik Nilsson, Professor of Packaging Logistics at Lund University. “There can be up to fifteen different actors involved before the food reaches your refrigerator.”
“We know that a significant cooling temperature throughout the chain from producer to consumer is a good measure to increase the shelf life of foods. It is important to keep an eye on the temperature and other parameters of the entire cold chain,” says Nilsson. “We are working to develop a technology called dynamic labelling. It allows us to follow the product through the food chain. The date can be specified more precisely and opportunities to cheat with dating can be decreased.”
Nilsson and his colleagues at Lund University have teamed up with researchers at SIK (the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology) and Malmö University. They were awarded SEK 10 million from innovation group Vinnova for the development of the concept of dynamic dating. The core of the system is a new sensor that is placed in food packaging and that provides information on temperature and bacterial growth. For you as a consumer, it will be easier to determine whether a product is edible or not.
The mobile phone shows how the food feels
Good hygiene in the food chain and the internal temperature makes most products often last longer than the stated expiration date. Most of us consumers lack knowledge about how food is handled, something that makes us feel insecure about how long it will last. Experienced chefs often say that it is just to smell and taste the food to determine if it is fresh, but most of us choose to follow the date indicated on the package.
“Much of the food thrown today is fully edible, and the idea behind the dynamic technology is that the food temperature and bacterial growth is controlled along the logistics chain and that information is stored digitally in the “cloud” on a server somewhere. The actors in the food chain can detect changes in quality and as a consumer you do not have to guess if the sausage is still edible or not. We find that the products last longer than we thought, ” says Nilsson.
The innovation project focuses mainly on meat, fish and dairy because there are products with a high economic value and a high environmental impact. “When the technology is mature, you can also use it on other products such a, poultry, fruit and vegetables,” says Nilsson.
The information on the label is changed
In the package containing milk, meat or fish is a small chip (sensor) that communicates with a database. Information on time, temperature and bacterial growth is collected at the wholesaler, the transporter, the grocery store and in your refrigerator. Via relays and wireless network ports information into a database in the “cloud.” The database calculates the expiration date and sends back information to the package. This information is dynamic and could, for example detect if the temperature has been too high somewhere in the supply chain leading to a shortened shelf life.
In the store the information is transferred to the digital price tags on the display case. At your house, point the mobile phone against the chip and using an app, you can read the last time you have to cook the raw material. If you left the grocery bag in the car for an hour on a hot summer day, the system will shorten the expiration date. The service can be combined with tips on recipes that fit the raw material. If you have a “smart fridge ” that records what is in it, a recipe will be proposed.
“The system is based on that scientific models that describe the coupling between temperature and how fast microorganisms grow in a food. Our sensors measure temperature and time, and through this we can estimate the number of microorganisms, which is crucial for determining the food’s longevity, ” says Nilsson. “We have started experiments on a small scale and if the project goes well we hope to have a solution that is ready for market in three years.”
The article was published in February 2014