Scientists and engineers at The Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre (SSUIC) are developing technology that will allow more scientific ‘best before’ dates to be set by food producers and retailers.
Smart sensors integrated with Oyster-card type RFID technology are being used to track real-time stresses suffered by perishable goods from farm gate to retailer’s shelf.
Chemists, engineers and physicists have teamed up at the Innovation Centre to develop a system that uses battery-free RFID tags to monitor and record stress. The tags, costing about 10p to 20p compared with £20 for the current version, could lead to the wide scale deployment of the technology within three years.
Dr Bruce Grieve, director SSUIC said: “There are both economic and environmental drivers behind the desire for this kind of technology. The economic motivation for companies in the food supply chain is to reduce the hidden costs that we all bear when purchasing fresh produce.
“Only a percentage of that produce makes it all the way to our plates and so when we shop we are paying an invisible fee for these losses.”
Grieve and his team believe that these loses can be minimised and costs recouped through real-time inventory management of produce, based upon accurate forecasts of shelf life on a box-by-box basis. “As consumers we may see some of this saving reflected in cheaper fruit and vegetables, while the companies that introduce and invest in this technology will also gain economically,” he said.
The smart sensor technology could also cut the amount of unfit produce that reaches the shelves. “This will help reduce fuel usage by minimising transportation of the stressed and rejected produce. It could also help reduce the environmental impact of unfit produce going into landfill,” said Grieve.
“But most importantly for climate change, it could also reduce the total synthetic fertilisers and nitrogen usage per tonne of food consumed. This currently accounts for around 70 per cent of carbon used in typical crop production,” he added.
The first generation of this technology will be based upon silicon but the research team plans to use plastic printed electronics in later generations to make the sensor tags compatible in cost with the humble bar code.
“This is adventurous research and won’t be with us tomorrow,” said Grieve. “Realistically we will have ironed out the major scientific hurdles by around the end of 2010 and then there is a significant step to translate this into a final device using appropriate manufacturing techniques. The commercial silicon sensor-tag could be with us in about three to give years where as the printed plastic equivalent may be here in 2015.”
Britain throws away £20bn of food every year and food makes up the single largest source of commercial waste at about 21 per cent.