Bavarian scientists tackle food waste with infrared tech

German scientists are tackling the pressing issue of food waste with the development of a mobile infrared scanner that can detect if food has gone bad.

The Bavarian agriculture and food industry is a €100 billion industry whose ‘Nutrition Cluster’ works on key social content such as food quality, sustainability and enjoyment.

Food waste has become an international concern, with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Association estimating one-third of all the food produced in the world is lost or wasted. That’s about 1.3 billion tonnes annually.

In Bavaria alone, 1.3 million tons of still edible food wind up in the garbage unnecessarily every year. The ‘We Rescue Food’ alliance, led by the Bavarian Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Forestry, wants to combat waste by means of 17 initiatives.

One of the projects production of an inexpensive, pocket-sized food scanner designed to help reduce waste at the end of the value chain – in stores and in the homes of consumers.

Developed by researchers at Munich’s Fraunhofer Institute for Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation IOSB, the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV, the Deggendorf Institute of Technology and the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences, the compact food scanner uses infrared measurements to determine the ripeness and shelf life of produce and display the results via an app.

“Infrared light is beamed with high precision at the product to be investigated and then the scanner measures the spectrum of the reflected light. The absorbed wavelengths allow us to make inferences about the chemical composition of the food,” explains Dr. Robin Gruna, project manager and scientist at Fraunhofer IOSB. By comparing the absorption spectrum from the food with that of a known sample, the device can determine not only if the food is still edible, but also its ripeness and even if it’s a counterfeit, such as trout being passed off as salmon.

The scanner sends the measured data via Bluetooth to a database for analysis, with an app displaying the results to the user, showing them how long the food item will remain fresh under different storage conditions, or indicating that its shelf life has already expired. In addition, the consumer is given tips on alternative ways of using food that is past its best-before date.

While the technique is already used in laboratories, the use of new, small, inexpensive sensors is reducing the size and cost of the technology for the consumer market. According to Fraunhofer, the scanner is still in the demonstrator stage. A test phase is due to begin in supermarkets this year, which will investigate how consumers respond to the device.

Further work is underway in enhancing the scanner, which can currently only handle homogeneous foods – ie it can analyse a potato, but not a pizza with many toppings. The hope is that hyper-spectral imaging and fusion-based approaches using colour images, spectral sensors and other high-spatial-resolution technologies may overcome this in the future.

Additionally, the technology could not only be used for foods, but also for wider applications, such as sorting plastics, wool, textiles, and minerals.

(via Fraunhofer, Bavarian State Ministry, New Atlas)