'Smart' food-safety barcode developed
March 10, 2009
by Bryan Salvage
KINGSTON, R.I. — Barcodes created by SIRA Technologies for refrigerated food product use will incorporate an ink that is practically invisible. When conditions indicative of contamination exist, the ink will turn red and the barcode will be rendered incapable of transmitting data when scanned, according to researchers at the University of Rhode Island.
"We’ve all heard about people who have been sickened by contaminated food in recent years," said Brett Lucht, who, with U.R.I. colleague William Euler, developed the polymer that is added to the barcode ink to make it change color. "Our partnership with SIRA Technologies is creating a smart packaging system that will prevent thousands of people from getting ill."
The U.R.I. researchers began studying thermochromic pigments a decade ago when a cookware company sought a polymer that could be added to its products to make them change color when they were too hot to touch.
The heat-sensitive material they developed turned from red to yellow at 180° F and back to red when it cooled. Although the polymer generated interest from more than 100 companies that sought to incorporate it into dozens of different materials, none were willing to incur the added costs of refining the polymer for their specific uses.
But when Mr. Lucht and Mr. Euler modified their discovery into an irreversible polymer —one that does not revert to its original color after changing — SIRA Technologies took notice.
SIRA had developed a barcode that could sequester pathogens from animal blood and quantify the colony of pathogens with colored organic beads until the color emerges to activate the barcode and report the contamination, said Bob Goldsmith, chief executive officer of the company. However, constant pathogenic mutations made it impossible to keep current with marketplace needs. The company’s subsequent search for an irreversible thermochromic ink led them to partner with U.R.I. in what is now trademarked and patented as The Food Sentinel System.
The cost of the SIRA Technologies barcode with the URI polymer will be less than four cents each.
"The licensing agreement we have in place with SIRA has the potential of generating hundreds of thousands of dollars — or more — in revenues to the university," Mr. Lucht said. "If even 10% of the packages of chicken and milk and beef sold around the world have the SIRA barcode on them, that would give a big boost to the U.R.I. research program. Only time will tell."
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