Putting food-safety detection in the hands of consumers

Simple, scalable wireless system uses the RFID tags on billions of products to sense contamination. MIT Media Lab researchers have developed a wireless system that leverages the cheap RFID tags already on hundreds of billions of products to sense potential food contamination — with no hardware modifications needed. With the simple, scalable system, the researchers hope to bring food-safety detection to the general public.

Food safety incidents have made headlines around the globe for causing illness and death nearly every year for the past two decades. Back in 2008, for instance, 50,000 babies in China were hospitalized after eating infant formula adulterated with melamine, an organic compound used to make plastics, which is toxic in high concentrations. And this April, more than 100 people in Indonesia died from drinking alcohol contaminated, in part, with methanol, a toxic alcohol commonly used to dilute liquor for sale in black markets around the world.

Food Yole

The researchers’ system, called RFIQ, includes a reader that senses minute changes in wireless signals emitted from RFID tags when the signals interact with food. For this study they focused on baby formula and alcohol, but in the future, consumers might have their own reader and software to conduct food-safety sensing before buying virtually any product. Systems could also be implemented in supermarket back rooms or in smart fridges to continuously ping an RFID tag to automatically detect food spoilage, the researchers say.

The technology hinges on the fact that certain changes in the signals emitted from an RFID tag correspond to levels of certain contaminants within that product. A machine-learning model “learns” those correlations and, given a new material, can predict if the material is pure or tainted, and at what concentration. In experiments, the system detected baby formula laced with melamine with 96 percent accuracy, and alcohol diluted with methanol with 97 percent accuracy.

In recent years, there have been so many hazards related to food and drinks we could have avoided if we all had tools to sense food quality and safety ourselves,” says Fadel Adib, an assistant professor at the Media Lab who is co-author on a paper describing the system, which is being presented at the ACM Workshop on Hot Topics in Networks. “We want to democratize food quality and safety, and bring it to the hands of everyone.”