A food label that speaks to the blind? Inclusive label tech developed to promote independence

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages
Pic: GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages

Related tags: accessibility, inclusivity, Food labelling

A ‘Narrative Label’ has been developed in Italy to help the blind and partially sighted access product information in-store.

The label is the work of Italian ag- and food-tech start-up Sistemi e Servizi di Precisione (SISSSPre), and was developed in collaboration with the Blind and Visually Impaired Union of Calabra and the Council for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Economics Analysis (CREA).

Titled the ‘Narrative Label’ and founded on a software platform consisting of photos, videos, texts, and voice narration, the project enables the blind and partially sighted to access product information in-store.

“The Narrative Label is intended to be a simple tool for blind people to access basic information on products in a shop,” ​start-up co-founder Fabio Mario Scalise told FoodNavigator.

“With such a tool, blind people will be able to go into a shop and purchase various products without the need of external help…each of us owns a smartphone, which is the only device needed to make the label work.”

Channelling inclusivity

According to the European Blind Union, an estimated 30 million blind and partially sighted people live in Europe, with an average one in three Europeans experiencing sight loss.

In Italy, it has been estimated that 362,000 blind people, and 1.5m partially sighted, currently reside across the country.

These populations can find it more difficult to carry out simple but important actions, such as shopping alone.

“Shopping alone is certainly a possibility that able-bodied people often take for granted. Indeed, it is often considered a burden, an obligation, a task that they would gladly do without,” ​noted SISSPre.

“In the case of a disabled person, this action requires ‘ad hoc’ tools [to enable] access of information on the products to be purchased.”

SISSPre’s solution aims to transform the shopping experience for the visually impaired. By being able to access product information via a smartphone, the start-up hopes members of the community will experience a newfound sense of independence.

How does it work?

SISSPre’s platform generates a QR Code, which can be placed on food product packaging. When the code is scanned with a smartphone, the user can touch the screen to kickstart the narration.

Narrated information also appears on screen, along with videos and images for those partially sighted or able-bodied.

So what information is ‘spoken’ to consumers via the Narrative Label? “Primarily, all information that currently resides on paper labels,” ​Scalise responded, citing the product’s name, description, nutritional table, expiration date, and manufacturer, as examples.

Any other pieces of information that could be useful to help the consumer make ‘fact based’ decisions are also communicated, he continued. This could be information relating to product’s – and its ingredients’ – traceability, for example.

“The Narrative Label can be generated in various languages in our portal,” ​the co-founder added.

Gaining scale

For the Narrative Label to make a significant impact to the lives of Italy’s 362,000 blind and 1.5m partially sighted people, it must achieve scale.

So who should be pushing for its adoption? Is it up to food businesses to voluntarily carry the label on-pack, or should retailers and governments make this decision for them?

Today, the choice is up to the individual food company, SISSPre’s Scalise explained. “There is no legislation that helps blind people [access] a minimum amount of information.

“However, SISSPre is part of a project that has started a process…to push for [EU-wide] legislation to be set up,” ​we were told. “In the meantime, we are promoting the concept amongst various food companies.”

According to the co-founder, the government should play a role in encouraging its adoption, however. “The government should help in promoting such a concept and in helping to raise [awareness] of the need for legislation to harmonise such a concept across Europe.”  

Footing the bill

Cost is usually a significant consideration when it comes to label changes and packaging modifications. Who will bear the cost: the consumer or the manufacturer?

In the case of the Narrative Label, however, SISSPre says the cost is ‘absolutely negligible’. “In terms of manufacturing, it is just the QR Code,” ​he explained, which can either be printed alone or incorporated into the exiting product label design.

“In both cases, the cost is negligible with regards to the product cost itself. At SISSPre we intend to offer a service…whereby each company can access our portal with their own credentials, [determine] how many labels are required, and simply print the associated QR Code in PDF.

“The cost of the annual fee will be up to a few hundred US dollars according to the number of labels [required] by any given company.”

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