Dr. Jan Schnitker has co-founded a startup called ‘Is It Fresh’ – a spin-off from the Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbH – to introduce smart, low-cost chip and sensor technology into the world of packaging. ‘Is It Fresh’ digitalizes food packaging and introduces freshness monitoring into every package using advanced printed electronics technologies and functional nanomaterials. The USDA estimates that between 30 to 40% of the American food supply is wasted due in part to the misconception that food must be disposed of once its expiration date has passed.
Given the rapidly lowering costs of producing 3D-printed electronic sensors, Schnitker saw an approaching price threshold that would make it cost effective for a manufacturer to splice a food-grade, disposable NFC sensor into a container, film, or absorbent pad in a package. That wireless sensor tag could read the product’s origin, manufacturing date, contents, and traceability and then communicate the unique freshness conditions—pH for example—of a perishable food item.
“Something like pH is an actual quality indication in contrast to what they do with a Time Temperature Indicator (TTI), where we think that if it has stayed under a given temperature for a certain interval, it’s a good product. That’s not true, temperature is just one influencing factor,” Schnitker says. “But what is the actual freshness on a chemical level? Temperature doesn’t answer that at all. That’s why we say we can move from a cold chain to a fresh chain, where a sensor is telling you actual facts about your product. And we can determine ranges, too, not just ‘spoiled’ versus ‘still good.’ The cold temperatures might have been maintained for the pork you’re buying, and the time to market may have been quick according to a TTI, but what if the pig had too much stress, or it was too old? Sensors can recognize chemical facts about the product.”
The Is It Fresh technology has been co-funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 SME Instrument Phase 2 program and has been in development since 2011.