How could tech make food labelling easier – and safer?

An allergen-related death recently became national news, but companies were working to provide solutions even before the headlines hit.

18 October 2018
image credit: Getty Images

Food labelling is a hot topic at the moment. After the allergen-related death of a Pret customer, the food industry’s responsibility for consumer health is under a brighter spotlight.

It’s a subject Alex Marsh is familiar with, having overseen a hundred Loungers sites for four years as its central operations manager. Now, Marsh is chief operating officer at Ten Kites, a recipe and menu-publishing platform.

It’s coincidental timing, but Ten Kites is well placed to deal with the increased customer concern about how foods are labelled. Teaming up with software supplier Caternet, the companies are combining their platforms to allow businesses to deploy live allergen and nutrition-compliant recipes and menus across all devices, online channels and apps in just one click.

Ten Kites is also working with a big-name labelling company to provide a solution in stores, Marsh tells Food Spark.

He says that while food intolerance regulations have been around since 2014, the issue is at the forefront more now.

“I think people are waking up to fact it’s not some sort of legislative burden – this is a difference between people's health and their lives," he explains. "But also we are in quite an exciting environment now, because four years ago people who suffered from serious allergies just wouldn’t have been able to eat out, whereas now they are given the freedom to eat out safely, and we as operators have to take that seriously.”

Allergens and trending lifestyles

So could this tech partnership aid safer labelling?

First, a simple break down of how it works. Caternet has a live recipe platform that allows suppliers to set up ingredients with a list of allergens, nutritional data and calories, but they don’t have a menu function – which is where Ten Kites comes in. As soon as the recipes are completed, Ten Kites uses them to create both interactive digital and printable menus that can be customised for each location. The information can also be pushed out to kitchen management systems, digital signage, click-and-collect features and social media.

“The amount of time required to build and maintain all of this information is absolutely monstrous," says Marsh. "Up until relatively recently, I was an operator running 130-odd sites, and menu launches take ages because all of the things you have got to maintain and to update are all in different systems. You have a cookbook with recipe info to give to sites for your chefs; the till information where again that has a separate database of the same recipes; you have a recipe builder as well.

"So one of the things that is particularly powerful of this system is its integration, because it’s automating all of that and it’s massively reducing lead time to launch a new menu or even make a change. It's more accurate, you’re taking one single database where suppliers have input all the info and there is no manual intervention.”

Marsh claims this tech means operators can provide correct and up-to-date allergen information to guests and staff that is also user-friendly. For example, Ten Kites can embed web menus with that display allergens when people click on it, or even offer filter options so a consumer can eliminate dishes with crustaceans.

The same functionality can also be delivered direct to a POS, so if a customer orders a meal and asks about allergens, staff can access information via the till or tablet, says Marsh.

“It’s a much better option, rather than staff having to go away to find out the allergen information. Often you find in some operations they have a print out of the allergen information, and it’s so easy to make a mistake if they haven’t thrown away the old recipe and replaced it with the new one,” he says.

But there other benefits beside identifying allergens, like being able to highlight dishes high in protein, low in calories or other dietary requirements.

“As an operator, I got emails weekly saying, ‘Can you tell me the calorific value of this dish?’ and ‘How much protein is in this as I’m on such and such a diet,’ so clearly there is a massive appetite for that kind of info in the modern world,” he adds.

Delivering in-store and out

Pret came under fire at the coroner’s inquest into the death of a 15-year-old girl who ate its artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette for failing to label all the ingredients on the packaging. Subsequently, Pret has announced it will list all ingredients, including allergens, on its freshly made products.

While unrelated to the tragic news, Marsh says Ten Kites are the middle of an integration with a big-name labelling company, where product information would be pulled direct from a recipe database like Caternet and sent to an automatic label machine in-store.

“So if you’re making batches of sandwiches, for example, in your store, you can simply press on the touchscreen of the recipe just made and it will then print all the nutritional allergen data, as well as the name of the dish and your logo. It’s an all in one labelling solution,” he comments.

“Historically, you would have to map the recipes and info, and if the supplier changes the specification of an ingredient or you change a recipe slightly that has to be manually updated. It’s a lot of work and it’s easy to miss something. Whereas with this integration that info flow is completely automated, so you will always know that those labels will be printed with exactly the correct information for the meal or dish that you are preparing on that day.”

Ten Kites are also working towards bringing this automatic labelling solution into delivery services such as UberEats and Deliveroo. “When the customer places the order from the app, that will fire through into kitchen and that will immediately generate exactly the correct label. That label would have the name of the customer, dish and allergens, and that would straight away be put on the takeaway box so the right food goes into the right box,” he says.

Long term, Marsh says companies could also mine the data to discover information, such as what customers are filtering on menus, to optimise the options on offer.

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