Aisling McEvoy of the National Centre for Sensor Research in Dublin City University (DCU) and her team are working on placing sensors coatings on the inside of food packages so that their integrity can be confirmed using a scanner. The current way to test whether food is being kept fresh is invasive and leads to the destruction of hundreds of packages in each batch produced, said the researchers.
The "Intellipak" method also allows the packages to be tested anywhere along their distribution route from the packaging plant right up to the supermarket shelf. As McEvoy points out, this could help boost consumer confidence in food safety, something that has dropped over the last number of years.
Food is currently preserved by air being removed from packs and replaced by a gas atmosphere typically made up of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. However, such packages are only randomly tested at the packaging plant and "best before" dates are calculated on a statistical basis using a destructive method.
According the Intellipak team, this involves withdrawal of a sample of gas from the package using a needle probe, the use of electrochemical methods to measure the oxygen concentration, and infrared techniques to measure the carbon dioxide concentration. "A failed test leads to the destruction of a large number, typically hundreds, of packages in the same batch," remarked McEvoy.
The researchers have already developed the sensors and the scanners to read them are currently being worked on. It is expected that the project will be at a "very advanced stage" in a year's time.
The work on this new method of testing food packages is being developed at the National Centre for Sensor Research, which is one of three research centre housed in a EUR45.5 million facility in DCU that was opened on Thursday.
The centre is also home to the National Centre for Plasma Science and Technology, the Research Institute for Networks and Communications Engineering, as well as DCU's faculty of engineering and design. Combined, the centre has over 300 researchers.