Sunday, 31 January 2010

Lights, camera, gourmet shopping...

Sunset cow
Slashdot editors post on food research again! This time their post links to a story covering the work of some researchers at the Gifu Prefectural Livestock Research Institute, who managed to rate high quality Japanese beef (Hida-gyu) using an infra-red camera. Well, to be fair, this is work in progress since the success rate of this optical evaluation method is not too high yet (about 60%) but the aim is too ambitious to ignore: After refinement, it could allow consumers to use cheap cameras, perhaps the cameras that mobile phones are already equipped with, to "measure" the sensory profile of beef cuts at the supermarket before buying.

The article does not provide an extensive scientific background; it seems that the infra red image can reveal information on the oleic acid content of the meat, which can be associated to desirable sensory parameters such as tenderness, flavour and overall taste.

I admit that I 'm totally fascinated by the idea. Smart tags have been in the focus of food researchers for a long time. At the beginning, the objective was traceability. In that sense, RFID tags would be able to hold all the necessary information to identify the origin of the product. But as their data holding capacity improved and the cost began to drop (although it is still prohibiting for most general uses), new applications came up. Time-temperature integrators, for instance, which can easily accompany RFID circuits, can provide data to already developed mathematical models that can estimate the microbiological or quality status of certain foodstuffs. Such systems allow the packaging to provide feedback to the consumer.

So far, however, such systems required investment on behalf of the industry, the cost of which could have an impact on product prices and - at a second step - on consumer preferences. This time, the researchers work on a scenario that uses (mostly) already available technology. I assume that an additional light source and IR filters may need to be employed in order to get readings from a cellphone camera. On top of that, one would also need specific software and - possibly - some means of calibration. Still though, none of those are unrealistic given the computing power of modern mobile phones.

I am really curious to see what will happen when that technology "hits the market". I would expect many more applications to follow that path of development. Also, I wouldn't be too surprised if meat producers started pre-marinating their cuts in olive oil solutions :-)

Interestingly, I have just realised that until now I considered infrared photography to be just another beautiful - yet geeky - kind of art. Well, that is about to change!

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