The digital labelling technology promising to ‘unlock the lost shelf life of food’

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Innoscentia
Image: Innoscentia

Related tags Food waste Traceability Food safety

A Swedish start-up has developed food labelling technology that offers real-time monitoring of food quality to help reduce waste and alert consumers of spoiled food.

Innoscentia has just announced a partnership with Canadian tech firm Ynvisible Interactive to produce expiration date labels that offer real-time monitoring of food quality to help reduce waste and alert consumers to spoiled food. The deal allows Malmo-based Innoscentia to present its prototype-stage technology to food manufacturers and retailers in the Nordics, with a view to large-scale production and printing of the labels across Europe.

“Our strategy is to use the Nordics as a bit of a testbed at first where we have a few partnerships with retailers and producers,”​ Innoscentia CEO Erik Månsson told FoodNavigator. “We will look to move to the bigger European markets within a couple of years.”

The labels connect digitally with a consumer's smart phones to tell them when food is about to spoil. Image: Innoscentia

How does it work?

The tech works by measuring the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are emitted as gases inside the packaged meat. As these gasses begin to signal that the meat is degrading, sensors in the labelling can connect to a consumer’s smartphone or another digital system to tell them their food is, or about to, spoil.

“We are developing active inks that react with the gasses that are emitted from the meat when it goes bad in the degradation process,”​ explained Månsson. “There are certain types of gasses that are correlated to the actual freshness of the food and we measure those gasses. when our ink reacts, it changes resistivity. We are building with Ynvisible a platform that can transform that resistivity change into an RFIB [radio frequency identification] signal that we send as information about the freshness of the product.”​ 

The company, which has been active since 2015, has also developed an analogue solution with an ink that changes its colour depending on the status of the food. 

The company is focussing its efforts at present on fresh meat products, primarily mince and chicken. But it plans to develop applications for other types of food such as fish, dairy products and alternative proteins. “All types of organic product produce volatile organic gasses so it would be the same idea,” ​said Månsson.

Demand ‘massive’ for solutions to food waste

The biggest draw of this type of technology is its promise of extending shelf life and minimising waste, he continued. Expiry dates typically have a 20% to 30% safety margin, for example. “In general, they would be fine to eat after additional days. There could be three to four extra days in a packet of mincemeat, for example. With our labels, you're able to actually see the status instead of seeing an approximation or a guess, which means it entails a longer shelf life than it would with a usual expiry date.”

Consumers are able to scan the labels with a smartphone whenever they want and know in real time if the product is good to eat. The technology can also estimate when an ‘actual’ expiry date is likely to happen.

All this has obvious advantages in preventing waste. According to Månsson, the demand for products that aim to tackle food waste is massive for both manufacturers and end consumers concerned about its negative impact on the environment. Food waste facts are now ubiquitous: it’s estimated that food losses and rotting waste – in supply chains and by consumers – release 1.8 billion tonnes of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. If food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. 

“In the meat industry globally we're wasting about 20% of everything that is produced,”​ added Månsson. “It's about 35% in Sweden and almost 45% in the US. It's sort of an invisible problem because it happens every here and there. We need a way to prevent this at many points in the value chain, both from an economic and environmental perspective.”

Tackling food waste offers food brands an opportunity to connect with consumers, he suggested, by demonstrating they are prepared to take more responsibility for the issue.

“Many meat producers are under quite heavy siege at the moment since it's become clear how impactful the industry is on the environment, so I think there are many reasons why we need to start building bigger systems that could tackle food waste. Out technology is one of the ways. We will not be solving the entire waste problem, but we will probably solve parts of it together with others.”

Enabling better traceability

As well as extending shelf life and minimizing waste, the company says the technology can increase food safety and enable better traceability of products by providing information regarding origin and environmental impact.

“There are multiple platforms coming up right now trying to track products from farm to fork and showing that in a transparent way so that you as a consumer or retailer get the information about where it comes from, how has it been transported and how is it produced,”​ continued Månsson. “Our labels enable that kind of tracking and that kind of data to be implemented in these traceability platforms.”

The company is, for example, also working with the IBM Food Trust which uses blockchain technology to improve transparency in the food chain.

“Traceability is another part we can solve. We allow producers, distributors and retailers to optimise their parts of the value chain with bigger amounts of data on each package in order to secure better distribution, handling and cold chains.”

Willing to pay a premium

There will likely be a small price premium associated with these types of labels, the CEO told us. But manufacturers and consumers will likely to be willing to pay more for them, he said.

“We're doing quite intensive studies of that now and we can see that most probably there would be a small premium. We have discussions with retailers and producers who believe that this is a way to enhance their sustainability credentials and their brand. We can also see that these types of labels enhance other value drivers of the product, for example, the overall feeling in the customers' eyes of the quality of the product is enhanced by the label.”

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