How Smart is Your Package?

How about a cantaloupe that signals when it’s ripe and milk that tells you when it’s spoiled?
That’s right, in the future no one will ask “Does this smell funny to you?”

Intelligent packaging is coming soon to a grocer near you.

Meat and fish can look fine even when they’re spoiled or tainted with bacteria and toxins. A new smart plastic wrap can sense the molecular changes that indicate decay, and a label will change colors to signal its status. There’s a wrap for produce that can sniff out ethylene gas, which indicates the ripening of fruit and vegetables, and hexanol, which signals spoilage.

Other packaging will be printed with temperature-sensitive inks that can change colors to signal when food has been improperly shipped or stored. They’ll turn the bar code red so that it can’t be scanned at the checkout. And there are refrigerators in the works that will be able to read the smart packages and can text or email food status updates.

It’s not just about spoilage. There are plenty of convenience and marketing applications in the works like self-heating soup cans, self-cooling beer cans, and attention-grabbing, light-up cereal boxes; but the real action is in food safety. That’s because all of the best if used by and sell by labeling we rely on is little more than a security blanket for consumers.

Freshness dating is not required by federal law for any food products except infant formula and certain baby foods. Some states require dating for dairy products, but there is no agreement or uniformity for freshness standards. For all other foods, labeling is voluntary. Producers can choose to slap on expiration dates, but there are no accurate or consistent freshness standards, and except for dairy products and formula, the retailers are free to keep the expired products on their store shelves.

Until the new, intelligent food packaging hits the store shelves, your best bet is the old tried-and-true: “Does this smell funny to you?”

For more information:

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture has Fact Sheets covering many facets of safe food handling and food spoilage.

Still Tasty is a complete guide to the shelf life of commodity and brand name foods. It offers storage and handling tips, creates shopping lists, and can alert you to looming expiration dates. Still Tasty is also available as an iPhone application.

 

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