The problems of food waste are well documented. Less so are the answers. One solution comes from UK-based start-up Mimica. It has created the Mimica Touch (formerly called Bump Mark) to provide a more accurate method of determining whether food is still edible.
Mimica Touch is applied as a label or a cap on food packaging. Inside the label is a bioresponsive gel that reacts at the same rate a particular food spoils. This gel liquefies over time. Once it has liquefied to the extent that you can feel the bumps underneath it, you know that the food or beverage is no longer fit for consumption. It is designed to be as easy to use a possible. The left side of the label is always smooth so that it is clear to consumers when the right side is bumpy.
The label can be calibrated to be used on any perishable item. Mimica claims the system is accurate to within hours of spoilage. The concept could cut “unnecessary waste in half” claims Mimica.
“I never thought I’d turn it into a business, but market demand made it an exciting opportunity,” Mimica’s founder and director Solveiga Pakštaitė, who devised the concept during her final year at Brunel Univerisity where she studied industrial design, explained to FoodNavigator.
Food waste has “always been an important issue", she said. “The difference is that people are taking notice of it now. It’s important because a third of food that’s produced gets wasted and when billions of people are going hungry it seems morally wrong to waste food. It’s really good that it’s come on the agenda.”
Do extreme challenges inspire the best innovation?
However, the idea was not originally intended as a solution to food waste. It came about instead during her university project with visually impaired people. “The project was about public transportation,” she explained. “I wasn’t supposed to be asking them about food, but I got nosy.” One of the questions she asked was: how do you know when your food goes off?
“It seemed that for all the other problems I asked them about they had worked out some kind of workaround. But when it came to food there was no good way of knowing. A lot of people didn’t want to trust their sense of smell because they couldn’t see what it looked like. It was affecting their personal decisions in terms of pushing them to longer-term foods that were less risky with the expected health consequences.”
So very quickly exploring “expiry dates led to me discovering this even wider problem of food waste”.
Best before date is unnecessarily cautious
The solution, which won the People's Choice Award at FoodBytes! by Rabobank in London last year, promises to disrupt the food packaging industry as it tackles the impact of food waste. Mimica started doing proof of concept work with the dairy industry last year, with Arla in particular, and plans to launch its first trial in the juice industry later this year.
“Juice is the second most wasted beverage in the home but the margins are quite different to milk so bringing on a new innovation is something that’s going to be a little easier for us to do than with the dairy industry we think,” noted Pakštaitė.
According to Mimica, printed expiry dates are just estimates based on worse-case conditions. Perfectly fresh food and beverage products are therefore thrown away when they are safe to consume, and the situation is misleading and confusing for consumers.
If we can verify the food then shelf life dates would not have to be so cautious, the firm believes. “Expiry dates are set conservatively because there is no way of knowing what temperature journey each individual packet is going to go through,” said Pakštaitė. “So you can understand why food manufacturers have chosen that system. But it really doesn’t serve us well because of the amount that we waste. 60% of the food that we throw away in the UK is still perfectly edible and for that points completely at expiry dates.”
The roots of the design as an aid for the visually impaired brings other benefits, added Pakštaitė.
“There’s also a lot of evidence that shows that colour changing indicators are more likely to have a knee-jerk reaction [among consumers].” This problem risks being counterproductive, causing even more food waste. “With something tactile that you can touch we can afford to be binary which gives people the clear cut view they want on their food.”
'When you increase shelf life and increase the perception of freshness – sales go up'
The design also makes business sense, she said.
“The label contains a material which experiences decay at the exact same rate as the food and basically the food inside naturally experiences decay and we can actually calibrate it to have the same spoilage characteristics as the target food. So there’s actually no direct contact between our label and the food product. There are other technologies out there that have some sensing chemicals touching the food, but as you can imagine that’s sometimes a difficult story to sell to consumers and the expense is too great to scale.”
The cost price is around one penny per label. “At that price point we think it’s a very scalable technology,” she said. “We’re able to demonstrate to brands and food companies a clear return on an investment that’s expressed in a reduction in their own waste in their supply chains.”
That return on investment is also expressed in higher sales, she believed.
“When you increase shelf life and increase the perception of freshness – sales go up. If you increase shelf life by two days, sales go up by 10%.” Brand loyalty increases too, she noted.
“We have data that shows that people are going to stay more loyal to the brands that are using Mimica Touch and some people would even be willing to trade up to a more premium brand using Mimica touch. So there’s lots of exciting ways that food companies will be able to see a return on that investment of one penny.”
FoodBytes! by Rabobank is a pitching competition for early stage start-ups, providing them with mentoring and networking opportunities with investors and corporates.
Applications for FoodBytes! London (6-7 November) close on 4 August at 11.59pm GMT. The platform identifies innovations with the potential to disrupt the food industry and supply chain. Areas it focuses on include sustainable farming, packaging, traceability solutions, environmentally-friendly ingredients, food waste reduction and the latest sustainable CPG food start-ups.
The criteria for successful applicants looks at product innovation, market opportunity, traction and commercial viability – with a focus on sustainability and social impact. The full criteria can be found here.
You can view Mimica's successful 2019 pitch here.