At the global level, about one third or 1.3 billion tons of food produced for human consumption are lost or wasted annually. According to the recently concluded EU-funded project FUSIONS, which had as an objective a more resource efficient Europe by significantly reducing food waste, this translates into approximately 88 million tons of food waste per year in Europe alone, with associated costs of EUR 143 billion. Crucially, in industrialized countries, over 40% of food waste occurs at retail and consumer level.
In Europe, the shelf-life of products is indicated by food labels such as ‘use by’ or ‘best before’, designed to protect consumers and enable them to make better informed choices when purchasing foodstuffs. In reality, however, many consumers are not clear on the precise meaning of these labels, with studies indicating that a considerable amount of household food waste (between 15-33%) can be traced back to misunderstanding the dates shown on edible products. In specific, the ‘best before’ date, representing the recommended last consumption date, is often confused with the ‘use by’ date, intended for foodstuffs that are highly perishable (such as fresh meat or dairy products).
European policy-makers are investigating potential options to simplify date marking on foodstuffs. This includes the extension of the list of foods excluded from the obligation to carry the ‘best before’ label. Currently these products comprise vinegar, sugar or salt. In the future, this list might be extended to include other non-perishable products such as pasta, coffee, UHT orange juice and canned tomato sauce. In addition, the European Commission is considering modifying the current terminology used in food labels, especially in case of evidence that a different wording could be better understood by consumers.
Nonetheless, despite European regulations trying to make sure that the indicated date of expiry matches the freshness of foodstuffs, these conventional labels remain only an estimation. This is where smart labelling comes into play, providing consumers with detailed product information either directly through visual indications or via a bar code that can be scanned using a mobile device.
What does smart labelling mean in practice?
Packing research institute ITENE has developed a smart labelling system called Freshcode, which applies a color-coded visual indicator to show to consumers the freshness of packed chicken meat. The Freshcode label contains intelligent ink sensitive to emission of volatile gases released when the meat starts to spoil. In the beginning the label is white, with the color gradually turning darker and eventually black when the product is no longer safe for consumption. The freshness can be evaluated by comparing the label colour to the reference colour. In the future, with the rise of IoT technologies and higher demand for transparency in food production, we expect more and more applications for smart labelling.
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