These Brilliant Fruit-Spy Sensors Will Help Reduce In-Transit Food Waste

The best part? They look, feel, and act like real fruits and vegetables

By Dan Q. Dao

Published on April 22, 2017

By now, you no doubt know that it's always best to shop locally, and in season, when it comes to fruits and vegetables. The main reason? That produce must travel great distances to reach the consumer, resulting in huge amounts of spoilage and thus food waste: fruits and vegetables, including root crops, account for roughly 40 to 50% of all food waste in the world. 30% of the world's food waste also occurs post-harvest, including in the storage and shipping phases.

Science Daily reports on how, to this end, the Empa Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in Switzerland has developed a new line of electronic sensors that can travel seamlessly with the produce as its shipped across the world, documenting core temperature and testing for other causes of spoilage. They're calling them "fruit spies."

Each wireless, self-powered device is surrounded by a solid plastic shell, balls of water, and carbohydrates to simulate the flesh of a fruit or vegetable. They can be further customized to mimic the exact appearance, weight, internal structure, and texture of the specific produce they’re embedded with, say Granny Smith apples versus Braeburns.

While their main function will be to measure core temperature and reveal patterns that indicate causes of spoilage, Thijs Defraeye, the scientist leading the project, tells Modern Farmer that in the future there will be a "variety of different applications for the sensor all along the supply chain," as Modern Farmer puts it, "from greenhouses and orchards, to cold storage and ripening facilities, to the transportation sector."

The devices aim to fill a void left by traditional sensors, which, when used for this particular purpose, are only able to capture the air temperature in freight containers. But that's an inefficient and limited metric; a pile fruit sitting in a suitable temperature room may have a higher temperature at its core, which can still lead to spoilage.

The one shortcoming? The data gathered by the fruit spies can only be acted on after observing a batch of spoiled fruit. The real hope, according to Defraeye, would be the ability "to receive the data from the cargo container live and in real time." The devices are estimated to cost less than $50 per unit, a more than reasonable price for the anticipated losses recovered (and food saved) over time.

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