Given the job I have, my parents like to tell me about food tech-related news they come across. Last night they were trying to explain a story from CBS This Morning that aired yesterday, but they had trouble relaying it. “It’s a scanner, you use it at the market… something about e. coli and…”

Intrigued, I found the report they were talking about. It’s no wonder they couldn’t explain it: the story was vague and provided almost no details as to how the technology works. So, for my parents and anyone else who saw the CBS Story and wanted a little more information, here are some details.

The technology in question is RFIQ (radio frequency IQ). Here’s a brief explainer from the MIT RFIQ research page:

Our system leverages RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) stickers that are already attached to hundreds of billions objects. When an RFID powers up and transmits its signal, it interacts with material in its near vicinity (i.e., inside a container) even if it is not in direct contact with that container. This interaction is called “near-field coupling,” and it impacts the wireless signal transmitted by an RFID. Our system, RFIQ, extracts features from this signal and feeds it to a machine learning model that can classify and detect different types of adulterants in the container.

You can read the full RFIQ paper.

According to the research overview, the technology can detect fake alcohol (like if methanol is mixed into a drink) with 97 percent accuracy, and tainted baby formula with 96 percent accuracy. In the CBS story, MIT Assistant Professor, Fadel Adib said RFIQ could be used for a broader set of applications including finding lead in water or e. coli on lettuce.

The bones of RFIQ sound akin to hyperspectral imaging, which studies how light reflects off objects to assess freshness, quality and foreign objects. But companies like ImpactVision and P&P Optica, which use hyperspectral imaging, don’t tout the technology as a way to detect foodborne illnesses.

The drawback to the RFIQ technology as it is envisioned now, is that in order for it to work, each item has to have a RFID sticker on it, and the user would have to carry around a small device that would plug into their phone to scan each item. This seems cumbersome and a big ask for food producers and consumers alike.

I’m sure Mr. Fadel and his team have thought about this and way beyond what I’m pondering. There is probably a more industrial grade solution that can be implemented in bulk throughout the supply chain. The RFIQ technology is still five years out from reaching the market anyway, so who knows what breakthroughs and advancements the MIT team will make by then.

For now, I’m just happy that there are researchers going about solving the problem of food contamination from different angles, and I’m happy to help fill in the blanks of my parents’ news watching.

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