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Colour-changing packets to warn of spoilt food

A food label can show you that your food has gone bad. Image: IQ-FRESHLABEL
A food label can show you that your food has gone bad. Image: IQ-FRESHLABEL

Responsive food packets could warn us when frozen food has got too warm, or even if meat has gone off, and they could be on supermarket shelves within the next few years.

‘If you have a product like fish you would smell that it’s bad by opening the package, but there are other types of food products that you may not smell,’ said Marie Shrestha, coordinator of the EU-funded project IQ-FRESHLABEL.

The project has developed a label that changes colour so people can visibly detect the quality of the produce they’re about to buy, or have stored in their fridge or freezer.

They’ve made one for frozen fish and another for fresh poultry. The poultry label uses an oxygen sensor because these products often use a modified atmosphere with less oxygen inside the package which extends the shelf life by slowing down the growth of bugs.

‘If you have more oxygen due to a leakage, this leads to faster spoilage,’ said Shrestha, from ttz Bremerhaven, a research organisation in Germany. ‘An oxygen label can show you that you have too much oxygen in your package.’

Researchers on the project, which finished in 2014, also found that people can see the benefit in intelligent food labelling. Interviews with more than 2 000 consumers found that they would be willing to pay EUR 0.20 more for products with this type of packaging.

Rotting meat

Another group of researchers has found a way to make food wrappers measure compounds given off by rotting meat.

‘The final output will be the consumer getting information about the real shelf-life of the product they are purchasing.’

Dr Silvia García Ruiz, TOXDTECT

‘This packaging will consist of sensors integrated into a film. These will measure volatile organic compounds produced by the meat when it’s spoiled,’ said Dr Silvia García Ruiz, from the EU-funded TOXDTECT project.

‘The final output will be the consumer getting information about the real shelf-life of the product they are purchasing,’ said Dr García, scientific project manager at the meat industry association ASINCAR in Spain, which is one of the four industry association project partners.

The three-year project began last year, and they believe the new packaging could be used in supermarkets by 2017. Current research focuses on beef but the team hopes to extend their research to other types of meat at a later stage.

Bringing the lab to the sample

Smart food sensors are also being developed that will help food safety experts trace the source of contamination in case of disease outbreaks and allow farmers to check the level of pesticides on their crop before harvesting.  

In the past, farmers and food processors have sent samples for analysis. However, the EU-funded project FOODSNIFFER is developing a handheld sensor that can pick out contaminants such as mycotoxins, pesticides and allergens.

The project has made a scaled-down version of a laboratory test which measures the binding of these contaminants to targets within the sensor. 

The researchers are halfway into their project and envisage a laboratory-grade portable product being commercialised by 2017.

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