US scientists have come up with cutting-edge technology that could reduce the amount of fruit and veg currently wasted by UK supermarkets by up to 30%.

The Massachuseetts Institute of Technology has developed sensors that use nanotechnology to detect levels of ethylene - a gas that promotes ripeness in fruit and veg - in cardboard boxes. The boxes can be scanned with a hand-held device to help retailers determine how ripe the produce inside the boxes is. “Grocers would know when to put certain items on sale to move them before they get too ripe,” said the institute.

This could significantly reduce the amount of waste currently generated by the supermarkets, claimed MIT chemistry professor Timothy Swager.

“If we can create equipment that will help grocery stores manage things more precisely, and maybe lower their losses by 30%, that would be huge,” he said.

The potential for nanotechnology to be used in packaging was considerable, agreed Mars UK MD Fiona Dawson - guest editor of The Grocer this week - but it needed to be ‘sold’ to consumers in the right way, she warned.

“We need to make sure it doesn’t become another ‘GM’ in the eyes of the consumer.”

The researchers tested the monitor on bananas, avocados, apples, pears and oranges during their research, which was funded by the US Army Office of Research.

Swager has applied for a patent for the technology and is looking to form a company to start selling the sensors commercially. He is already looking at adding a radio frequency identification chip to the sensor, so that a wireless handheld device could pick up and display the ethylene levels. In addition, he is exploring monitors that could detect when food goes mouldy or develops bacterial growth.