Food waste is generated at the retail level by food suppliers and consumers due to a lack of real-time information about the actual edible state of individual food items. The UN has estimated that one-third of the global food production is lost or wasted every year, and nearly 60% of the food waste occurs in households. The food is often thrown away based on expiration dates, odor and color of the food items.
However, the best-before dates marked on food packaging may be inaccurate because of many different variables that affect the food supply chains. For example, food producers have to estimate the correct storage temperature needed for different types of food during transportation and the amount of time the food may spend in unrefrigerated conditions.
Spanish biotech startup Oscillum has come up with a solution. It has developed food labels with embedded sensors that can detect molecules generated at the beginning of the putrefaction. The fully biodegradable labels and sensors, which are harmless to humans, change color to visually indicate if a product is still edible or not, helping consumers avoid food poisoning and food waste.
"We want to provide consumers with real-time information on the status of their products so that they can make the best decision," said Oscillum CEO and co-founder Pablo Sosa.
A yellowish-green colored label shows that the food is safe to eat. Consumers are alerted that a product is about to decay when the label’s color changes from green to blue. “The chemical indicators react according to the compounds produced during the natural decomposition process," Sosa explained.
Most of the 7.7m tons of annual food waste in Spain consists of fish and meat. That’s about €300 worth of food thrown out as garbage per household and a total of 3.5bn tons of CO2 emissions generated from the production of unconsumed food. “We want to save up to 40% of these total emissions in a more efficient way,” according to the Oscillum’s pitch at an EIT Climate-KIC competition in 2019.
Based in Elche in the southeastern province of Alicante, Oscillum was co-founded by three students who formed the idea while they were in university. “We were living abroad in Germany where people were not too concerned about the appearance of the food,” Sosa said. "One day, I wanted to throw away a chicken fillet opened the day before. It had turned yellow and smelled strong, but my colleagues were surprised and told me it was still good to eat, and they were right.”
Sosa discovered that chicken generally produces a strong smell because of the molecular compound generated once the package is unsealed. However, the meat is still edible and safe to eat.
The incident prompted Sosa and co-founders Pilar Granado (CTO) and Luis Chimeno (CMO) to develop the smart food label concept to help consumers distinguish between not-so-fresh and inedible expired food. The innovation won them an entrepreneurship award in 2018 at their alma mater in Elche, at a Miguel Hernández University Scientific Centre program.
After graduation, the co-founders officially launched Oscillum Biotechnology in 2019 with bootstrapped capital of €6,000. The startup continued to win more awards with prizes worth €100,000, including the Business Market 2019 in October.
The team also pitched at the national Climate Launchpad program of EIT, winning a grant and a place at the global final in Amsterdam. In July 2020, Oscillum won the agrifood EIT Innovation Prize and quickly gained access to industry experts and potential investors, opening new opportunities for future R&D for product and business development.
Although currently used for fish and meat, the smart food label concept can potentially be applied to any perishable food. The startup’s sensor technology is now being adapted for processed meats, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and frozen foods.
Oscillum’s other research projects include smart labels with antimicrobe properties that can delay the decomposition of food products. So far, the startup has managed to prolong the life of fish and meat products by nearly five days beyond the expiration dates on the packaging.
Competitors in the space use different technologies to achieve similar results, such as time-response technology and radio-frequency identification (RFID) that are expensive to deploy on a large scale. “Our technology is very cost-efficient and viable to implement in the agrifood system, capable of managing a very high volume of products,” Sosa said.
“A client wants us to produce 90,000 labels daily, just for one type of product,” he added. “We are doing a pilot test to scale production and be able to meet [our client’s demand]." With the current production capacity at only 500–600 labels a day, the startup needs to raise about €500,000 to €600,000 to scale up its commercial operations.
Meanwhile, Oscillum also provides consultancy services for research to detect common food parasites harmful to humans, such as Toxoplasma gondii found in meat and Anisakis in fish. It also advises clients on compliance with safety standards and helps them to achieve better control of all internal processes and logistics to track each product throughout its food chain.
The startup is currently waiting for approval from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to allow its smart labeling technology to be integrated into agrifood chains. Its ultimate goal is to sell directly to consumers to reduce food waste by sticking the colorful labels on individual food items at home.