A new smart packaging solution will soon hit the market in a bid to combat food waste. BlakBear, a London-based food supply chain company, has developed a paper-based electrical gas sensor that indicates how much shelf life is left for packaged meats, poultry, and fish in real time that the company says is more accurate than traditional expiration dates and provides accountability in the supply chain.
Chief Technology Officer Giandrin Barandun, along with CEO Max Grell and COO Michael Kasimatis, created the BlakBear smart labels when they were bioengineering students pursuing their Ph.D.s in the Guder Research Group at Imperial College London. Placed inside the packaging or embedded within a multilayered packaging material, the label measures the freshness of packaged meats, chicken, and fish by detecting gas emitted from the perishable foods as they spoil in order to accurately quantify their shelf life.
The paper-based label features two electrodes printed on it as well as an embedded RFID chip. When food spoils, microbes release ammonia gas. This water-soluble gas is absorbed into the paper’s cellulose fibers and then dissociates into ions. The electrodes sense and measure the ionic conductivity present in the layer of water that is already naturally present in the paper’s fibers to determine the shelf life of the product. “We correlate the voltage or the electrical signal that we measure from the dissolved gas with the actual microbe and organoleptic data,” Grell says.
“The sensor can measure ammonia gas down to 200 parts per billion, which is more than 100 times better than the best human noses,” he adds. “So it’s much more sensitive than what you could do yourself. And it responds in seconds as well.”
Sensing the benefits
Grell says the BlakBear sensor can mitigate food waste caused by fixed expiration dates. About 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted globally each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Part of the problem is that consumers misinterpret those conventional date labels. Sell-by dates designate when a product is at peak quality and flavor and are not indicators of food safety, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But many consumers mistakenly throw away edible food based on those conservative expiration dates.
According to Grell, the BlakBear sensor offers shelf-life data that is much more accurate than food expiration dates. Consumers can access the shelf-life data in real time when they scan the RFID tags with their smartphones. In addition, the BlakBear web app can send consumers reminders to their smartphones notifying them of how much shelf life is left in their packaged foods—indicating whether it is still safe to eat the products or to discard them after purchase.
Food manufacturers can use the shelf-life data from the BlakBear label to improve quality control and add shelf-life days to the products in their supply chains. For example, they can choose the best shipping routes to optimize freshness. In addition, if a product is spoiling faster than it should or the packaging has been tampered with, the manufacturer can immediately locate and fix the problem.
Another benefit of the BlakBear label is its affordability, according to the company. Each label could cost less than 5 cents each to make at high volumes. “It basically comes down to the cost of the RFID microchip because paper is the cheapest substrate material on earth,” Grell says.
BlakBear says it is currently trialing its paper-based electrical sensors with large U.K. and North American protein processors and retailers, but declined to mention the specific brands it is working with. While the BlakBear sensor has proven effective with fresh meats, chicken, and fish, the company is testing the sensor to see if it can be applied to other packaged food products. BlakBear is also working with TPG Rewards, a marketing technology company, to develop consumer marketing programs that leverage the RFID technology embedded in the packaging.
In the meantime, BlakBear is also developing reusable food storage containers with the sensors now that more people are cooking at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s in response to the new world that we’re in,” Grell says. “People can’t go out to eat, so they have to store a lot of food at home. We’re testing the waters there.”
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