2012-07-18

Co.Exist

Innovation In Food Safety From Kids, With An Assist From Lego

The annual First Lego League Global Innovation Award turned its attention to food safety this year, and the innovations from the contest may soon help us make sure our food is staying fresh.

When thinking of Legos, you most likely picture blocks that snap together instead of innovative new projects. The First Lego League is starting to change all that. Their competition brings robotics to 9-16 year old kids around the world (capped at age 14 in North America) and encourages them to form teams and work to create innovations around a core challenge. They also sponsor an annual Global Innovation Award (Legos need not be involved in said innovations) The teams learn about patenting and prototyping their creations--useful lessons for future inventors.

This year, the hordes of inspired kids tackled food safety, with some awesome results. Teams from over 60 countries submitted their ideas, and nearly a million votes were casting, narrowing the field to just four finalists, some of which created new products you might actually see in stores.

The Erasable Barcode was the entry from a middle school team from Ohio. They say that the barcode prevents the sale of meat stored at improper temperatures, and lets the consumer know if exposure happens after the food has left the grocery store. “Our Erasable Barcode combined a product called the Timestrip, which measures temperatures above 40 degrees, with the grocery store barcode,” they write in their description. When the Erasable Barcode is activated, the word "SAFE" appears. As the time outside the temperature increases, the ink advances closer to the barcode. After two hours, the ink flows into a chamber that covers the barcode, preventing it from being scanned. When this happens, the prefix "UN" appears next to the word "SAFE", making it "UNSAFE". This works at home too, because if the meat has been stored at improper temperatures at home, the word "UNSAFE" still appears, so the consumer will know.

Tied with the Erasable Barcode for first place is the Smart Sticker came from a group of 6-8th graders from Connecticut. They came up with an idea for a so-called Smart Sticker after long power outages this past fall in the Northeast, which caused refrigerated food to become undependable and unpredictable. The team’s Smart Sticker is placed on the outside of a refrigerated food container, like an egg carton, and has a positive color (green) indicating that the food has been properly stored at the appropriate temperature for the life of the product throughout its transportation and storage. If the food is left outside the acceptable temperature range for an extended period of time, the sticker irreversiblys change color (red) to indicate that possible food contamination may have occurred. If the food is placed back into appropriate temperature storage, the sticker remains red. The team says that the sticker was originally designed to monitor egg safety, but “additional research has allowed us to alter its use for other products.”

The first place winners were each awarded up to $250,000 in services and support to help bring their ideas to market. Both teams will also be featured on the Emmy award-winning PBS television show Everyday Edisons. The runners up each received $5,000.

The runners up included the FreezeStick, a way to keep food colder longer, created by an Israeli team. The stick creates chemical reactions in an enclosed container to renew the freezing of the ice in a cooler, gaining yet another 10 hours of cooling. “When the time comes to re-freeze the cooler, the device is operated, and the cooling effect takes place. Due to its compact size, many FreezeSticks can be carried along, and used whenever necessary. The device is very low-price, and so can easily be part of a common travel kit,” writes the team.

The other runner up, the Smart Milk Pitcher was created by a team from New York City. The innovation detects spoilage by measuring pH change and alerts consumers to the bad milk. It is equipped with flashing color lights, a sound alarm, and a written message, to alert people (able or disabled, young and old) about whether the milk is spoiled. The pitcher is also insulated so that it can be unrefrigerated for a longer amount of time.

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