How Innoscentia plans to make those old expiry dates a thing of the past
Expiration dates (aka – “Best before” dates or “Use by” dates).
We trust these dates implicitly with our health. Most consumers often don’t know where the date comes from, or even how it is determined. Nevertheless, we place our unwavering faith in these dates to tell us whether our food is good or bad. Many of us assume that the date stamped neatly on the package is literally the day the food spoils. Not a day earlier or a day later.
Of course, Martin Olsson learned the hard way that this was not the case when he was food poisoned while eating fresh meat. Twice. And yes, he ate it before the supposed “expiry date.” Why did this happen? Because the reality is, despite all of our advancements in technology and our knowledge in the field of food science, these expiration dates (for the sake of simplicity, we will also include “best before” and “use by” dates under the same category) are at best an estimate of when the food is no longer safe to eat.
In other words, your food may still be good by expiration date, or it may not be still good by the expiration date. Or it may actually expiry on the date we predicted… maybe.
The UN is now estimating that there will be 1.3 billion tons of food wasted this year. One third of all food is thrown away simply because it is past its shelf life (aka – “expired”) and ⅕ of all processed meat will be thrown away based on these expiration dates. With global hunger on the rise, and the poor Martins of the world still getting sick despite their due diligence and adherence to the expiration dates, maybe this “expiry date” system we rely upon so much is simply not a good enough system anymore.
And that is how Martin began his quest for a new system in 2013. One that would prevent food waste, increase food security, and stop those delicious dinners from turning into an unpleasant date with the toilet all evening. A system that would actually tell him when the food was going to expire (Or at least, more accurately, anyways. Because all good scientists know you cannot be 100% accurate). Of course, like any good PhD Chemist, Martin found his solution in chemicals. More specifically, he found his solution in ink.
Soon Martin would be joined by Erik Lindberg and RobinThiberg, two management students who became intrigued by the concept and had been looking for some interesting scientific research they could commercialize. Together they would form the company known as Innoscentia. Then came Rambambu Atluri, a PhD in Chemistry and Nanotechnology. With the help of his new team, they set off on their heroic quest to validate and commercialize the use of special inks in the battle against those evil and vague expiry dates.
Expiry dates are often determined by time and temperature (i.e. – how old the food is and at what temperature it is maintained at). Martin’s system uses neither. Instead, he chose to measure the freshness level of food. His first target for this experiment: his good old friend, meat. Packaged meat gives off a certain amount of volatile organic gases (aka – vox) when the item is about to spoil. For the analog label, vox levels can be measured using specialized inks which change colour based on vox level. This gives a much more accurate visual cue for both the retailer and consumer alike about how much time the product has left.
What does this mean in terms of reducing food waste? First of all, producers, distributors, and retailers throughout the value chain (after the meat is packaged, of course) are less likely to prematurely throw food away, meaning more perfectly good food makes it to the shelf for the end consumer to buy. Since the vast majority of food products don’t actually expire on the expiry date, and many people refuse to eat food that is past the expiry date, having those 1 or 2 extra days where you can say, “this item is ok,” can reduce food waste by up to 50%.
In other words, by using a label like Innoscentia’s to better predict food safety, sales for retailers would rise, food waste would go down (reducing global emissions), and consumers would actually have a much better idea of whether their food is safe to eat or not. It’s a win-win-win all across the board.
However, the potential of the ink doesn’t just end there. There is also a “digital” ink that can be used. For digital ink, an electrode is coated in a special type of ink while a very small circuit is printed onto the label. While on one end you have the electrode, on the other you can have a tag (e.g. – an RFC tag) to measure the resistance level in the ink as it reacts to the vox levels in a packaged product. The resistance in the digital ink is therefore measured by the circuit and can send a signal to a much bigger digital system, such as IBM’s digital blockchain system for food traceability.
“We will be working with IBM to integrate our digital ink technology into their current food tracing systems. We’re really looking forward to seeing the product in action,” Erik Mansson, the current CEO of Innoscentia explains to me.
The journey in developing this product has not been easy. Unlike other software and tech industries, product development and testing in the food and foodtech industry takes significantly longer due to all of the additional red tape and safety measures a product has to comply with. After 5 years of R&D and validating the initial prototype, they are now testing the processes for manufacturing their labels on an industrial scale and hope to have a commercial product ready by the beginning of next year. Once ready, the product will have the potential to reduce food waste while increasing food security, food safety, and food traceability. Once ready, Innoscentia plans are starting with labeling for the meat packaging industry, but they also plan eventually to use the labels for other food applications.
With the potential of Innoscentia’s analog and digital labels, it is no surprise that they were chosen as one of the top 10 foodtech startups for the EIT Food Accelerator program supported by VTT and the EIT FAN Helsinki hub. While he had heard great things about the program, Erik didn’t realize just how many great resources and contacts would be made available to them. They are already discussing different types of research projects that they can do with Helsinki University and VTT. Their EIT FAN mentor, Lauri Reuter, has also offered great insight to their challenges as well as a different perspective.
While CoVid-19 certainly seemed to put a damper on the in-person activities, Erik has been impressed by how well the program is still working in the online remote setting. It’s allowed them quite a lot of freedom and flexibility while saving them a significant amount of time in dealing traveling and other logistical issues. First they learn, then work, then learn again, and that has suited the team at Innocentia quite well. Of course, he is still looking forward to meeting his mentor as well as all of the other startups in-person one day.
In the meanwhile, we can all look forward to the day when expiration dates are a thing of the past, and that vague “maybe” can turn more into a definitive “yes” or “no.”
For more information on Innoscentia’s products check out https://www.innoscentia.com/
For more information on EIT FAN’s accelerator program check out http://eitfan.eu/helsinki
Written by Vivian Leung