For industrial designer Solveiga Pakstaite, the issue of expiry dates actually came “through the eyes of visually impaired people.”
She was undertaking a research project for the Guide Dogs Association and discovered there were no tools to help visually impaired people know when their food was off, resulting in them buying longer life foods with more preservatives and salt.
“But quite quickly I realised that we were all blind to when our food goes off, because we are using these dates that are determined by manufacturers and more often they are the worst-case scenario date,” explains Pakstaite.
“And what that means is in most cases the worst-case scenario won’t happen… So 60% of the food we throw away in the UK is still perfectly edible, so I realised we need a whole system overhaul.”
From this revelation, Pakstaite’s company Mimica Touch was born, along with a new way to make food last longer.
So how does the new labelling work?
The company has developed a biologically accurate food tag that decays at the same rate as the food inside the packaging, which reduces food waste and improves food safety, according to Pakstaite.
“It’s a tactile label and all you need is your finger. If the label feels smooth the food is safe, and when the label turns bumpy it means the food is no longer safe for consumption,” says Pakstaite.
It is not a replacement for date labelling, which is required by legislation, but having the data on decaying rates encourages manufacturers to increase the shelf life to the expected date, rather than the worst-case scenario.
Plus, the material for the label is actually a waste by-product from the food industry, making for a nice circular chain.
Initially, Mimica Touch has been focusing on fresh protein products – dairy, eggs, fish and meat – because they are high risk, high cost and have the biggest environmental footprint.
“We can improve companies’ sales as at the moment there is up to 20% of waste of short-life products, and for them that is lost profit, and they are also having to pay for the waste management to get rid of that stuff,” explains Pakstaite.
“It’s also been shown that consumers buy more when food lasts longer… When consumers see that products can last longer they will switch brands… because that is better value for money.”
The company has identified ready meals and pre-packaged convenience meals like sandwiches as the next target for the technology.
Food Standards Agency advice
- The use by date is about safety: Foods can be eaten (and most can be frozen) up until the use by date, but not after. You will see use by dates on food that goes off quickly, such as meat products or ready-prepared salads.
- The best before date is about quality and not safety: The food will be safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best in terms of flavour and texture. The best before dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods.
Sustainability and shelf life
So how has the industry reacted?
Well, the interest of supermarkets has been peaked, while manufacturers “feel like they are bringing something cool to the retailer” due to the huge level of competition between suppliers, says Pakstaite.
But each manufacturer has different considerations depending on whether they are an outward-facing brand or not.
Pakstaite says a ham manufacturer that works with Tesco is considering the technology from a financial point of view, while Mimica Touch is conducting a pilot with dairy company Arla, which is more interested in appealing directly to consumers.
“[Arla] have brands like Cravendale and they are really interested in not just the financial gain, but are interested in appearing to customers like an innovative company that cares about their wellbeing and sustainability, and it gives them brand value as well,” she says.
Most importantly, Arla’s milk products generally have a shelf life of 10 to 12 days, but tests in the Mimica Touch labs have extended that by about five.
A bacteria sensor
But Mimica Touch is already looking at taking the technology to the next level. The first version doesn’t interact with the inside of the product, but that’s where the company is headed, says Pakstaite.
“What we are aiming to do with our second version, which is still in the lab right now, is a one way membrane. We will perforate the top of the food pack and that will allow the bacteria to travel up to the material, but then nothing from the label will go down to the food – it will just be one way,” she says.
“So right now we will be launching a model and modelling what’s happening inside, but the second version will be a more accurate sensor, which we are really excited for, and it could open up further applications in being able to put it on stuff that wasn’t pre-packaged and has just been wrapped in the plastic at the end of a cooking day.”
This means it could be used in restaurants and in the catering industry too.
Time temperature labelling
Another technology that is common with food labelling is time temperature indicators. In fact, Sainsbury’s ham has a smart fresh label which turns from yellow to purple once the packaging has been opened.
This technology was developed by Scottish company Insignia Technologies, which says avoidable food waste costs the average UK household £470 a year, with people throwing away 1.9 million slices of ham a day because the advice is to consume it within two days of opening.
“The After Opening Label uses a smart plastic which detects changes in atmosphere and temperature,” the company’s website says.
“Opening the packet changes the atmosphere around the label, triggering the colour changing process. The centre dot on the label will change colour gradually from yellow to purple over three days, after which it is considered ‘past best’.”
Insignia is looking to extend this technology across a range of food products.
Then there is Cryolog, a French company that is also working on temperature sensitive labels with its product Topcryo. It translates the time and temperature impact on the conservation of heat-sensitive food by using a non-reversible colour change.
Expiry dates are one of the top three reasons for food waste, so making food last longer is a win for everybody – manufacturers, retailers, consumers and the environment.