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New Systems Uses RFID Tags to Help Identify Food Contamination

Max Pixel

Researchers from MIT Media Lab have created a new wireless system to help sense potential contamination in foods. The system uses cheap RFID tags that already appear on hundreds of billions of products available across the country. Best of all? Scientists don’t have to make a single hardware modification to enact this new food protection system. The program is scalable as well, so scientists are confident that the new technology could quickly make an impact on food safety in America.

Scientists call their new system RFIQ. It contains a reader capable of picking up minute changes in wireless signals, particularly those that come from the RFID tags found on many foods. For research purposes, scientists focused their efforts on baby formula; however, they were quick to stress that consumers could easily use this technology on any food product they wanted.

RFID tags are very special stickers. They come equipped with tiny, ultra-high-frequency antennas. They can be found on many of the food products people purchase on a daily basis. On average, the cost of each sticker comes in at around 4 cents. A basic wireless device known as a reader can ping the RFID. The RFID then turns on and sends out a unique signal. This signal is full of information about the specific product in question. And now, scientists believe they can use this technology to help reduce outbreaks of contaminated foods.

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The readers operate on a very simple principle: when certain contaminants come into contact with a product, the RFID tag will change signals. These signal changes can be taught to a machine-learning model; with this information, the model can accurately determine whether the product is tainted or fit for human consumption. Testing showed the program was capable of detecting dangerous chemicals with a 96-97 percent accuracy rate.

“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. We want to democratize food quality and safety, and bring it to the hands of everyone.”

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

To create this system, scientists coated the sensors with chemicals. They then had to train the sensors to identify and detect specific contaminants. Scientists believe this technology can be adjusted to look for a variety of different chemicals and contaminants; with further research, they hope to bring this technology to freezers and smart refrigerators, so people can know instantly if something is amiss with the foods they’re eating.

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