Will They Really Reduce Food Waste? Computer Chips Coming to Food Packaging


These days, everything is “smart.” Your washing machine can send a message to your phone, and your tablet can control the television. In this connected world, food–and particularly food waste–has remained mostly analog, but that may be about to change.

Scientists working to tackle food waste have developed a computer chip that can be inserted into food packaging. The chips will be able to know when the contents are nearing their use-by date, and alert the consumer, thus preventing food waste.

At face value, this technology sounds extremely practical. With horrifying amounts of food waste heading to landfills around the world, anything that encourages people to eat that bagged salad before it gets brown and slimy makes perfect sense. And since we’re all glued to our phones and computers, it’s not hard to see how text message from the contents of your fridge would be more effective than those vague expiration and “best before” dates printed on the box.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market told an EU committee the current convention of the best before date “assumes that everything’s equal. It just assumes that you all keep your food at the same temperature.” This of course isn’t true, with the back of the fridge often colder than the front. The microchipped packaging would help reduce food waste by actually responding to the real conditions in which it’s stored, say researchers.

The idea is that if you know which ingredient is quickly approaching its spoiling point, you’ll be more likely to find a way to incorporate it into dinner.

What they fail to mention is how easily a text message is read, and then forgotten. Or for the more neurotic among us, deleted. If your bagged salad sends a plea for help in the middle of the work day, how likely is it that you’ll remember it come dinner time? Or what if you just don’t feel like eating salad that day? The message gets deleted, and rotting ensues.

The other drawback of this plan is that it assumes, even encourages, the consumption of food that comes in packaging. Despite the fact that packaged food tends to be highly processed “food.” Even worse, it hints at a world where fresh food–like apples, bananas, and mushrooms–is donned in unnecessary packaging just because we need to attach a microchip to it. Reducing food waste by increasing packaging waste just doesn’t seem the right way forward at all.

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Image: PV KS