Carol Houghton looks at the latest innovations in ‘smart’ labels aiming to reduce the universal problem of food wastage
As governments across the world debate the value of ‘sell by’ and ‘display until’ dates on food packaging, UK company Oli-Tec has developed a smart label which, the company claims, will help reduce unnecessary food waste by giving a realistic indication of when individual food products are no longer fit to eat.
The UK government recently suggested removing ‘sell by’ and ‘display until’ dates from food packaging to reduce the confusion amongst consumers and reduce the £12 billion worth of food thrown away each year in the UK alone.
‘We want to simplify this so that you can see when a food should be ‘used by’ for food safety reasons, if it’s perishable,’ said UK secretary of state for the environment Caroline Spelman. ‘Then we want ‘best before’ as an alternative for foods that simply deteriorate in quality.’
Every year, according to some estimates, Europe wastes up to half the food that passes through the supply chain, which includes producers, processors, retailers, caterers and consumers. Members of the European Parliament have called for urgent measures to reduce this figure by 2025.
Now Oli-Tec has launched a patented Time and Temperature Indicator (TTi) label developed over the last eight years in response to this issue. The technology is planned for release into the food retail market in April 2012 and will be manufactured and sold by Open Life Packaging, a private limited company based in the UK. The international consortium responsible for the development of the Oli-Tec labels includes investors, machinery manufacturers, label producers and retail experts.
Managing director of County Labels and CEO of Open Life Packaging, Nik Richardson said: ‘This label solution combines state of the art technology with a simple visual display that everyone can understand. Millions of tonnes of unnecessary waste will be avoided through the use of intelligent labels that match the life of products. Retailers and manufacturers have relied on simple date codes for far too long, because there was no alternative. Now a solution exists that can not only help consumers to use more of the food they buy.’
Oli-Tec labels can be programmed to exactly match the ‘key dates’ set by the manufacturer or producer of the product it is applied to. Time and temperature sensitivity enables it to display accurate ‘best before’ and ‘use by dates’ according to actual storage conditions via a traffic light display. Universally recognizable, the color system helps consumers quickly identify what needs to be used and when, as the three colors change to reflect the actual condition of the product. The label is green when the product is ‘good to consume’, amber when the ‘best before’ date has passed, and red when the ‘use by’ date has arrived. The amber phase is said to be key to the process; a ‘call to action’ for the consumer.
Originally developed for fresh products, Oli-Tec will be available in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit a range of applications, including a delayed activation version for jars, bottles and packets. The technology stays dormant on the primary packaging until the factory seal is broken, causing it to self-activate and monitor the life cycle of the produce from then on.
The label is activated at the first point of opening and color changes are then triggered by the ‘open life’ of the product. It is also suitable for pharmaceutical goods, with a green and red indicator to indicate ‘good’ and ‘discard’. The design ensures that any catastrophic internal failure – due to external trauma or otherwise – results in a ‘red’ state, as a fail-safe mechanism.
The Oli-Tec label is a multi-layer construction; the base is made up of multiple ‘reservoirs’ containing different fluids, while the middle layer has many ‘conduits’ of differing lengths filled with High Viscosity Media (HVM), which connect into the reservoirs below to allow the fluids to react with each other. The top layer has ‘surface decoration’ and a ‘viewing window’, but also acts as the ‘start mechanism’ when the label is partially, or peelably, removed.
Once the top layer is partially removed – either at the point of packaging (for fresh produce), or on the point of opening (for pre-processed goods), the Oli-Tec label commences operation.
Explains Nick Richardson: ‘An aqueous solvent in two of the reservoirs starts to dissolve down the HVM within the conduits. The time taken to dissolve the HVM is a precise function of the physical length of the conduit, the solubility of the HVM within it and the ambient temperature. During this time the Oli-Tec label presents ‘green’ in the viewing window.’
When the HVM within the shorter conduit is fully dissolved, enzymes within the aqueous solvent attack and digest a separating plug or barrier which is interspersed between the ‘viewing reservoir’ and the amber color instigator reservoir. Once the barrier breaks down, the amber color instigator fluid inter-reacts with the fluid in the viewing reservoir to change its color, from the ‘green’ state, to the ‘amber’ state.
‘When the HVM within the longer conduit is fully dissolved, enzymes within the aqueous solvent attack and digest a second separating plug or barrier,’ says Nik Richardson. ‘Once the barrier breaks down, the red color instigator fluid inter-reacts with the now ‘amber’ fluid within the viewing reservoir to change its color, from the ‘amber’ state, to the ‘red’ state.’
The timing of the label – from three days to three months – is unrelated to the speed of color change of the traffic light system, which is claimed much faster than other technologies – measured in minutes and seconds – removing ambiguity, subjectivity, and consumer confusion.
Fresh as a Strawberry
British retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S) has begun using a self-adhesive strip inside its strawberry punnets to increase shelf life. ‘It’s Fresh’, an eight by four and a half centimeter ‘plaster style strip’, is manufactured and supplied by It’s Fresh!, a UK based company. It does not affect the recyclability of the packaging.
The hormone Ethylene causes fruit to ripen and then turn moldy. The strip – containing a patented mixture of minerals and clay which is 100 times more effective for ethylene absorption than other known materials – acts as an ‘ethylene remover’. It is said to help reduce food waste by keeping the strawberries fresh for longer.
Simon Lee It’sFresh! director said, ‘Our technology is focused on food freshness designed to increase consumer satisfaction, taste and quality, through simple, safe, sustainable solutions. We are delighted to be pioneering this British technology with M&S on strawberries and are currently working on other products that will be in-store in the near future’.
Trials of the new technology showed a minimum wastage saving of four percent. According to M&S, during the peak strawberry season this would equate to around 40,000 packs, approximately 800,000 strawberries. It also means that the strawberries taste fresher for longer.
Hugh Mowat, M&S agronomist, commented, ‘This new technology is a win-win for our customers – not only will their strawberries taste better for longer, but we really hope it will help them to reduce their food waste as they no longer need to worry about eating their strawberries as soon as they buy them.’
Mowat added, ‘This new technology is a very exciting step forwards for the fresh fruit industry and we hope that we can extend the use of it into more of our products during 2012.’
High tech innovations company, It’s Fresh! is focused on delivering comprehensive solutions for food freshness. It has supplied the technology to other UK retailers for transit packaging, but this is the first time it is being used in the packaging of consumer products.
Pictured: It’s Fresh is used inside punnets of M&S strawberrys
This article will be published in L&L issue 1, 2012