Intelligent and active labels could ‘revolutionise food communication’

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Label Packaging Food waste Traceability

Smart labels that use state of the art technology to give shoppers a host of new information about products could create a direct line of communication between consumers and producers and help foster a new era of trust between them, according to a new research project.

The Smart Tags project, funded by the EIT Food innovation initiative and coordinated by the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, is looking at innovative packaging that could be adopted along different food and supply chains.

The EIT Food-funded project is working with consumers, producers and retailers to develop smart labelling similar to QR codes. It consists of research partners, food industry and technology developers from all over Europe. The partners are the University of Reading (UK), University of Warsaw (Poland), KU Leuven (Belgium), Matis (Iceland), AZTI (Spain), DouxMatok (Israel) and Maspex Group (Poland).

food label
The rise of smart labels and smart packaging is giving consumers greater access to the traceability of wine products to ensure its quality. Image: The Smart Tags project

Building trust between consumer and producer

The project believes active and intelligent labels -- giving information on, among other things, whether the product in the package is spoiled, its freshness, temperature in the package, appropriateness for personal diet, sustainability, origin, potential allergens, recipes, and storage instructions -- can allow shoppers rapid and better information about food and drinks they consume.

New labelling systems being developed could also enable producers and retailers to cut down on the amount of waste produced in packaging, and could also include detailed information on the origin of ingredients and shelf life, it said.

“Consumers want to know more about the food they are eating not only before buying products, but also after having purchased them,” ​said Dr Giuseppe Nocella, Associate Professor in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading. “They want to be assured in a friendly way not only about the quality, safety and sustainability of the food and drinks that they consume but also how to recycle and dispose these products.

“These new systems of communication, providing a much easier way for consumers to rapidly and directly check the quality and safety of their products, can be seen as a key factor to enhance trust from farm to fork making food supply chains more transparent.”

Exciting innovations in smart labelling

Many brands are currently exploring labelling innovations to give consumers better information about food and drinks they consume.

For example, Upfield’s Flora Plant product is introducing on-pack carbon labelling​ to 100 million packs of its margarine and spreads by the end of 2021 in order to “help consumers make informed decisions about the environmental impact of the foods they choose”.

Other start-ups are exploring labelling technology to deal with the problem of shoppers unnecessarily throwing away food and beverage that goes past its best before date. Swedish-based Innoscentia, for example, is piloting digital technology offering customers real-time monitoring of their meat that tells them, via a smartphone, when the meat is about to go off​.

UK-based Mimica offers similar food packaging tech: a label filled with a liquified gel​ which hardens as the food or beverage inside the packaging spoils. A bumpy label therefore signals the food is no longer good to eat.

Too complex and expensive?  

However, many in the industry complain that new food labelling aiming to tackle issues such as food waste and the carbon emissions created from food, is often too complex, time consuming and expensive to implement, particularly for smaller companies.

“We are investigating these aspects looking at both on what kind of intelligent labels stakeholders would like to invest, and how much consumers are willing to pay for different intelligent labels in several European countries,”​ responded Nocella. “These results will be available at the beginning of the new year.”

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