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Smart food packaging makes expiration date labels unnecessary

The concept of expiration dates on food packaging may soon become obsolete, thanks to innovative smart technologies developed by a team of researchers. These inventors have created a suite of tests that could allow food packages to actively indicate if their contents are contaminated.

This advancement aims to bridge the gap between food producers and regulators to foster the integration of these tests into commercial products, potentially revolutionizing how we determine food freshness, reducing waste, and preventing illness.

Smart packaging replacing food expiration dates

Currently published in the journal Nature Reviews Bioengineering, this new study suggests that while the tests associated with smart packaging would impose a minimal cost — mere cents per package — the benefits far outweigh these expenses.

Food producers, often wary of passing additional costs onto consumers, may find these smart packaging solutions an economically viable alternative to traditional expiration dates.

According to the researchers, smart packaging could shield producers from the costs linked to reputational damage and recalls during foodborne illness outbreaks.

Moreover, this technology could drastically cut down on food waste and associated health-care costs, saving society hundreds of billions of dollars globally each year.

Balancing safety and cost

“On the one hand, people want to have safe food to eat. On the other, they don’t want to pay more for their food, because prices are high already and seem only to be climbing higher,” notes Tohid Didar, a key author of the study and a noted biomedical engineer from Mcmaster University.

He stresses the importance of initiating discussions among researchers, policymakers, corporations, and consumers to address these challenges collaboratively.

Regulatory hurdles in smart food packaging

The adoption of this technology requires significant changes to food regulations and packaging practices — changes that may initially meet resistance.

Despite these hurdles, the potential benefits are too significant to ignore, and the researchers are optimistic about achieving widespread acceptance of the technology.

The current system

The researchers argue that the traditional practice of using “expiration” or “consume by” dates is not only arbitrary but overly cautious.

This system often leads to the disposal of food that is perfectly safe to eat, incurring enormous costs for both producers and consumers.

To illustrate, Didar points out that Canada discards about $40 billion worth of food annually, a higher per capita waste than the US or UK.

Smart food packaging beyond expiration dates

Since 2018, the research team has developed and validated various packaging-based methods to detect or halt spoilage, potentially replacing traditional expiration dates. These innovative solutions include:

  • Sentinel wrap: A plastic wrap capable of detecting spoilage and visually indicating when food items like meat, cheese, or produce are no longer safe.
  • Hand-held tests: Devices that deliver real-time results, enabling wholesalers and retailers to identify and pull spoiled goods from the supply chain before reaching consumers.
  • Lab-on-a-package: Small, integrated tests within food trays that signal spoilage visibly.
  • Sprayable bacteriophage gels: Food-safe sprays that eliminate harmful bacteria responsible for food contamination.

These technologies are designed to detect biochemical signals from common spoilage organisms like Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli, and are easily adaptable to current packaging processes.

Building a collaborative network

“It’s one thing to do research in the lab, publish papers, and file patents, but it’s another to have a product that’s tangible — that people can use,” notes Shadman Khan, the lead author and a PhD candidate.

The team has been actively engaging with food producers in North America and Europe and regulatory bodies like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure the technologies are practical and regulatory-compliant.

Shift from expiration dates to detection-based systems

The researchers advocate for a shift from a calendar-based to a detection-based system for food freshness and safety, recognizing the need to update our approaches to reflect new technological capabilities.

This change, while substantial, is deemed necessary to align with current and future demands of food safety and sustainability.

In conclusion, the development of smart packaging technologies represents a promising frontier in food safety and waste reduction.

It is a call to action for regulators, producers, and consumers to reconsider and possibly retire outdated methods like the expiration date in favor of more precise and reliable indicators.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Reviews Bioengineering.


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