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Institute of Food Research News Archive

14 July 2005

Smart card technology to monitor smart food choices in schools

A team led by the Institute of Food Research has completed a 2-year study of food choices made at a North London school, to be published on Thursday. Scientists tested the viability of using “smart card” technology to monitor pupils’ mealtime choices.

Project leader Dr Nigel Lambert said: “School dinners are currently a highly political and emotive social issue. The government has pledged to tackle menus, but measuring children’s eating habits at school is fraught with difficulties. Accurate information is necessary to support the government’s public health policies. Smart card technology could provide a practical and accurate solution.”

One in five English secondary schools makes use of basic smart card systems for meal payment. This takes cash out of schools and reduces queuing times. The cafeteria at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School routinely serves around 1000 diners aged 7-16 and their system was upgraded for the study. For over a year, a full electronic audit was made of every transaction that took place and each food chosen was converted to its nutrient composition.

Nigel Lambert“No questionnaires were required, nor an army of researchers, but the system succeeded in objectively recording food choice with 99% accuracy. It can also be continued long term, unlike the more usual three to seven day ‘snapshot’ studies”, said Dr Lambert

The aim of the project was to test whether smart card technology could be used in this way, but it also produced a wealth of data on foods selected.

Senior nutritionist on the study Professor Ian Johnson said: “Not all the data has been analysed, but we can already see that despite a vigorous healthy eating policy operated by the caterers and the school, and healthy foods being readily available, the children generally preferred products high in sugar and fat. This reflects the preferences of most UK children.

“The research using smart card technology has demonstrated the ability of the system to identify individuals who persistently choose highly inappropriate meals. What a school does with that important health information presents society with an ethical issue.”

Smart card systems could be used to help schools with healthy eating programmes through personalised feedback on food choices, or reward schemes for children who choose healthy options.

The technology could be applied to other cafeteria settings such as in the armed forces, universities or prisons where monitoring food choice would be beneficial.

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Notes to Editors

Please contact Zoe Dunford for more information, photographs and an interview with Professor Ian Johnson: 01603 255111 / 07768 164185 zoe.dunford@ifr.ac.uk

1) Background
The UK Government has pledged an extra £280million to tackle the “school meals crisis in England”. As recently as May 2005 the Government set up a new School Meals Review Panel chaired by Ms Suzi Leather. An early objective for the panel is to create compulsory nutritional standards for school meals.

2) What next?
A proposal has been sent to the NPRI (National Prevention Research Initiative) to set up a network of similar smart card systems across 4 mixed state schools and to use this network primarily to monitor the effectiveness of a Department of Health-supported dietary intervention based upon the “whole school approach”. In addition, the new study plans to explore the moral and ethical issues raised by the technology.

NPRI is a new multi-disciplinary national initiative established in recognition that disease prevention is a major research priority. The NPRI is sponsored by a broad consortium of partners (including the DoH, Medical Research Council and the Food Standards Agency). This initiative will be managed by the MRC on behalf of all the partners. For further details see www.mrc.ac.uk/index/funding.htm

3) Funding came from:
BBSRC Eating Food & Health LINK Programme.

4) Details of the papers:
Lambert, N., Plumb, J., Looise, B., Johnson, I.T., Harvey, I., Wheeler, C., Robinson, M. and Rolfe, P. (2005a) Using smart card technology to monitor the eating habits of children in school cafeterias 1: Developing and validating the methodology. J.Hum. Nutr. & Dietet. Volume18

Lambert, N., Plumb, J., Looise, B., Johnson, I.T., Harvey, I., Wheeler, C., Robinson, M. and Rolfe, P. (2005b) Using smart card technology to monitor the eating habits of children in school cafeterias 2: The nutrient contents of all meals chosen by a group of 8-11 year old boys over 78 days. J.Hum. Nutr. & Dietet. Volume 18

Lambert, N., Plumb, J., Looise, B., Johnson, I.T., Harvey, I., Wheeler, C., Robinson, M. and Rolfe, P. (2005c) Using smart card technology to monitor the eating habits of children in school cafeterias 3: The nutritional significance of beverage and dessert choices. J.Hum. Nutr. & Dietet. Volume 18

5) Contact names and addresses:

Smart card manufacturers
Ms Amanda Hewson:
Business Manager, Gemplus Ltd., New Lane, Havant, Hants PO9 2NR Amanda.Hewson@gemplus.com Tel 02392 488051

Hardware/software installation
Mr Mike Robinson:
CCM, CCM House, Crown Close, Crown Industrial Estate, Priorswood, TAUNTON, Somerset, TA2 8Q mike.ccmsharp@btconnect.com Tel 01823-331166

Catering
Ms Penny Rolfe:
Marketing Manager, Scolarest Caterers, Icknield House, 40, West St, Dunstable, Beds. LU6 1TA Penny.rolfe@compass-group.co.uk Tel 01582 600222

School
Mr Malcolm Gilbertson:
The Bursar, The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, Elstree, Herts, London, WD6 3AF Gilbertson_m@habsboys.org.uk Tel: 0208 266 1703

Collaborating scientific partner
Professor Ian Harvey:
Professor of Epidemiology, School of Medicine, Health Policy & Practice, University of East Anglia Norwich ian.harvey@uea.ac.uk Tel 01603-592057

Funders
Mr Matt Goode:
External Relations Unit, Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council Swindon Office Matt.Goode@ifr.ac.uk Tel 01793 413299

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