Innovative Smart Packaging Tells You if Your Food is Safe to Eat

This new film can help cut down on food waste.

Mar 2, 2020

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There are so many choices when you go shopping. And so many labels to read. You have to check the ingredients and the nutritional values to see if the food is healthy. And you have to check the sell-by or expiration dates so that you know how long you can store and use the food you are purchasing.

But did you know that the best by dates on food packaging don't really tell you if the food is safe to eat. Food can last longer or on the other hand, the food may not last as long as it says if it wasn't stored correctly at any point of the distribution chain. Now there is a food packaging that can detect and change colors if the food is spoiling.

Americans waste 103 pounds of spoiled food out of their refrigerators every year according to The New York Post. The new smart packaging from Primitives Biodesign – a startup that operates out of a lab at Indibio, a biotech accelerator in San Francisco –  can help to reduce this huge waste of food.

While this startup is mainly concerned with engineering` plastics with algae and other bio based feedstocks to reduce the dependence on unsustainable plastics, they have also come up with packaging materials with advanced sensing, display and biodegradation properties.

According to Fast Company, this all-female team of scientists, engineers, and bio designers of Primitive spent months developing this new bio-based smart packaging that responds to environmental and safety changes in the food. And this new packaging can be composted after use.  

“We’re incorporating sensing mechanisms into our materials that allow it to detect things like spoilage or even cold chain monitoring,” Viirj Kan, CEO of the startup told Fast Company.

Kan and Primitive's cofounder Noa Machover first developed this sensing technology as students at MIT. They saw the potential in thin-film packaging because the material is compostable unlike the usual type of film used to wrap food.

“We were talking to waste management facilities, talking to different government officials, and talking to potential customers, to understand what it is that they want and need and what the major problem is,” Kan said. “We’ve been able to validate that flexible film is one of the biggest problems in the plastics pollution issue, so we targeted and focused on that.”

The basic material that doesn't contain sensing material is made from algae and according to the company can block oxygen effectively than regular film, so the food stays fresher longer and it also blocks UV-rays. Since it is made from a natural substance, it can also break down in nature.

Making the film smart is the tricky part. Here the team used a process that mimics the way nature responds to changes in the environment.  According to Fast Company, the mechanism responds like the way a pinecone responds to changes in humidity by releasing seeds or the way flowers emit compounds to change colors.

“It [the film] could be supplement packaging that indicates when it’s been tampered with by changing color, or insulin labels that respond to high temperatures to tell you that it’s no longer safe,” says Kan. She explained that the new packaging can be used on food products to tell if the food has turned bad before someone has to smell or taste it.

The startup has proven in lab tests that the technology works and now they are working on how to develop commercial uses for it. But for now, Primitives will launch just the compostable film without the sensors. The added safety features will come out later.

Helping to curb food waste in products like meat or cheese which have high greenhouse gas emissions will help to reduce climate change. The fact that the film is compostable will also keep it out of landfills or our waterways. It seems like a win/win for this all-female team.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.