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Researchers advocate for detection technology over best-before dates

Posted: 1 May 2024 | | No comments yet

A team of researchers advocating for replacing best-before dates with new packaging technology that they claim detects food spoilage.

best before

A team of researchers from McMaster University have created a suite of tests that they claim enable food packages to signal if their contents are contaminated and are now working to get them in use in the food sector.

The researchers are currently aiming to bring together producers and regulators to get their inventions into commercial products, with the goal of preventing illness and reducing food waste.

According to the team, though the tests would cost “just a few cents per package”, food producers have shown reluctance when it comes to adding costs that consumers will “ultimately have to bear”.

The article was published in the journal Nature Reviews Bioengineering, and spotlights the potential of a system based on smart packaging, something that the researchers claim “would save producers from reputational and practical costs associated with outbreaks, dramatically reduce food waste and reduce health-care and lost-time costs associated with outbreaks”.

Going further, the researchers state that society “would save hundreds of billions of dollars globally each year, more than justifying the cost of adding the technology to food packaging”.

Commenting on the findings of the study, Tohid Didar, the paper’s corresponding author and a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur, said: “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.

“We are eager to make people aware of the challenges that exist, and start a conversation between researchers, policy makers, corporations and consumers work together to come up with solutions for such challenges.”

Authors of the paper acknowledge that public agencies are aware of the benefits of new spoilage-detection technology for food packaging, but highlight that widespread adoption would require significant regulatory and packaging practice changes, which could encounter resistance.

Despite these challenges, the researchers have said that they believe that the technology’s potential to reduce food waste and enhance safety will lead to broad support and positive outcomes for all stakeholders.

In recent years, there had been a number of changes retailers’ use of “Use by” dates on food and beverage products. In fact, New Food has reported that numerous retailers in the UK alone had been making alterations, including Aldi, who, back in 2023, removed all “Use by” dates from its fresh milk.

Aldi removes ‘use by’ dates from fresh milk

According to the research team, the current practice of marking fresh foods with a “best before” or “consume by” date is “arbitrary and far too conservative” and claim is something that “often [causes] perfectly safe food to be wasted, which imposes huge costs that producers and consumers are already paying for, whether directly or indirectly”.

Since 2018, the group of McMaster engineers and biochemists behind the paper have invented and “proven the viability of several packaging-based methods for detecting or halting spoilage”. These include Sentinel Wrap and Lab-on-a-package, however they have cited several challenges when it comes to industry implementation.

“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,” says the paper’s lead author Shadman Khan, a PhD candidate and Vanier Scholar in Didar’s lab.

“We are building a collaborative network with government regulators and industrial partners. That is allowing us to see the big-picture issues and adapt to what we learn will and won’t work.”

The authors, which include faculty members Yingfu Li, Zeinab Hosseinidoust, and Carlos Filipe, have been collaborating with food producers in North America and Europe, as well as government regulators like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Transitioning from the traditional calendar-based approach to food freshness and safety to a new detection-based system requires a significant effort. However, in their paper, the inventors emphasise that they believe it is time to modernise food safety practices when it comes to date labelling.

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