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Smells fishy: researchers develop 'sniff chips' to combat food waste

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Smells fishy: researchers develop 'sniff chips' to combat food waste
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As is the case in many western countries, Europe is a land of comparative excess.

Double cheese burgers and jumbo fries, all you can eat buffets and multi-packs of sausage rolls , buy one get one free on sides of beef and going extra extra extra large for an additional 25 cents, most of us are spoiled for choice any time we find ourselves craving more food than our stomachs can physically handle.

Our eateries are obliging, our supermarkets well-stocked and thus our mentality has become one of: "there's more where that came from."

But with excess, comes waste.

In the EU, almost 90 billion kilograms of discarded food is thrown away each year - some of it due to a lack of self-restraint, but most of it due to consumers discarding perfectly edible food that has reached the untimely end of its sell-by-date and been thrown out with the rest of the rubbish.

Reading too much into an expiration date is often the customer's downfall.

While supermarket chains and food supply companies apply them to selected products, this is often to avoid legal liability, as opposed to a strict rule of law to be adhered to.

Something smells fishy

They say the 'smell test' is the first port of call to check whether food is still good to eat, but still sealed packages of food make their way into the dustbins of customers who take "best before" as gospel.

Of course, smelling a piece of two-week-old halibut to see if it's gone bad is not at the top of everyone's to do list, but what if there was a sensor built in to packaging that could do it for you without even having to open it?

Researchers in Belgium and France are doing just that - collaborating on a project to tackle one of the biggest waste challenges of our era.

Through their efforts and innovation, the project has paved the way for a silicon sensor that may be able to detect the volatile compounds produced by food as it decomposes.

Lotta Kuuliala, a microbiology researcher at Ghent University told Euronews: "We use microbiological methods to examine the microbial growth within the food products, chemical methods to determine the concentrations of the volatile compounds, and sensory evaluation to get information from panelists by smelling".

For the past four years, the TERAFOOD project has brought together partners in Lille, Ghent, Dunkirk and Brussels to work on this challenge.

And with a total investment of €2 million - half coming from the European Cohesion Policy - they are well on their way. Although a few tweaks and alterations need to be made before they are reader for consumers.

According to Professor Frank Devlieghere who works alongside Kuuliala: "It is a multidisciplinary project. We need specialists in food and food spoilage, on the other hand we need investigators that are able to miniaturize, to make the small chips that make the technology possible"

Eating into borrowed time

One big hurdle is that most people don't own the kind of equipment necessary to scan the sensors for traces of decay.

The miniaturize it, researchers in Lille use silicon, a common and cheap material, although it is not often recycled. Unfortunately, at present, the microchips can only be read by a heavy and expensive laboratory machine.

However, the scientists behind the project have much bigger dreams.

According to Marc Faucher, head of the nano and micro-systems group at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS): "At the end of the technological development of this microsystem, it will contain its own detection method to be interrogated remotely, so that it will be possible to use it in the field without the need for large laboratory resources."

In addition, it will take time to develop a sensor capable of sniffing every kind of food. However, project coordinator Mathias Vanwolleghem says for a technology that has never been tried before, it is already successful.

According to him the first tests to "simulate how the sensor would work in a real food package" are set to begin, and by Summer 2020 the team should have a first demostration of the viability of this new technology.

Within five years, scientists think the first sensors could be on the market for industrial use.

However, it may take a little more time for consumers to have an app on their phones able to tell them if their salmon is still good for sushi.

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