Special Edition: shelf life

How fresh is it? Smart sensors quantify stages of shelf life

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Infratab shelf life sensors software freshness
Researchers have developed smart sensors and software to measure and quantify how fresh food is, offering information such as the period of best flavor, highest nutritional value, and days left after opening. 

Infratab Inc, the company developing the products, says this will give brands and consumers a much better indication of shelf life, therefore reducing food waste.

How much freshness has been used?

The company’s Freshtime range includes tags: smart sensors that can be used to monitor temperature and freshness. They range from a ‘workhorse tag’ for general manufacturing, storage or transport; to the clip tag for RPCs (reusable plastic containers).

The tags can measure the product’s perishable life using ‘Freshtime Points’ – which start at 100 and decrease to the quality end-of-life at 0. When temperature is sensed, the sensor calculates the freshness ‘used up’, and subtracts this number from the total.

The range can be used across the supply chain for perishable foods, from the brand, transport, retailer, or end user. It also has applications for non-food items such as pharmaceuticals.

From a film director in the desert…

The idea to focus on shelf life began in the 1970s, when Infratab co-founder and president Stanton Kaye was a film director in the Utah desert. The heat destroyed some of his film, prompting him to investigate chemical time-temperate devices to calculate shelf life used up at each temperature sensing.

Infratab was later launched in 2002. Terry Myers,  CEO, Infratab, told FoodProductionDaily.com 2014 is the year in which it has achieved its vision of “a system consisting of tags, data capture software, cloud and analytics, that can inexpensively track freshness and can be used by anyone.”​  

“Our tags are getting smaller,”​ he said. “As people begin using them, variations in physical layout and design will evolve. 

"We recently made a great oyster tag - able to be quickly added to sacks of oysters - and able to withstand the ocean and the oysters.  We have another tag for frozen products.  And we even experimented with a 50 foot silo tag.​  

“We are readying two additional Freshtime tags:  Freshtime NFC and Freshtime Dual (EPC/Dual)--added to our current Freshtime EPC tags.

“Freshtime NFC is a tag that can be used by ordinary people with their smartphones --  small growers,  businesses, farmers, restaurants  - for the cost of a downloadable smartphone app and tags that can be used and reused.”

“Freshtime Dual is a tag that can be attached to a product and started in the field in India, using a smartphone, and then used by high volume packing houses, fast moving consumer product brands and retailers who are part of the GS1 global supply chain.”

How fresh is fresh?

Current methods of monitoring perishables – such as temperature loggers and use-by dates – only give limited information about products. Often, they result in food being wasted because there is no way of knowing whether food which has gone outside temperature limits is, in fact, still safe.

Quoting the Institute of Food Technologists, the company says the result of current temperature handling processes is that 31% of the US food supply in 2010 was wasted.

The Freshtime Points are set by the brand owner but can be validated and audited. This gives brands greater consumer confidence and trust, Myers said. Quantifying freshness also monetizes freshness, he added.

“The end of life is set by the brand owner, and represents what it, the brand, believes to be the date or time at which the product should not be used.  It reflects the quality it wants its product to be known for.

“Our Freshtime Points, when controlled by the brand, reflect all of the things it did in pre-harvest, in packaging, in use of controlled atmosphere storage.

Green, yellow and red

 “We allow the user to set color bands that represent (for example) field fresh, premium fresh, brand standard, industry standard, challenged. Green and gradients of green going to yellow is fresh, orange is challenged, red is ‘dead’.

“We like to look at our tags as a way to share responsibility for freshness, and a way to add freshness into a company's quality systems.”

The Infratab products are targeted at the fast-moving consumer goods companies and retail chains, as well as those buying food.  But uses could also include a number of other situations: small cacao growers in the Ivory Coast, oyster harvesters seeking the highest prices, infant milk buyers in China, Myers added.

Uses in the supply chain

Freshtime tags can also provide information to help suppliers work out the best logistics methods.

“The data collected from Freshtime tags beings to tell you: the right side of this truck is hot – never put raspberries there. It shows points used by one carrier vs another, or the points used when flown by air or shipped by ocean.

​“What Freshtime becomes, when used this way, is a sensor that creates smart data for big data analytics.”

Related topics: R&D

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