A patent-protected traffic-light style food freshness label is set to revolutionise the UK food industry on its retail launch in early 2012, and will help tackle the nation's £12bn food waste problem.
That’s the message from Open Life Packaging, a UK-based firm that will produce and sell the Oli-Tec labels (pictured) under licence in the UK.
The company represents a worldwide consortium of investors and manufacturers who are project stakeholders.
Members include the world’s largest label machine manufacturer, its largest cutter manufacturer and biggest adhesive manufacturer, who have all helped develop the labelling technology over the past 8 years.
Oli-Tec is patent-protected technology that uses a time and temperature indicator (TTI) label that measures these variables, with a display showing the freshness of the product to which the labels are applied.
Initially developed for fresh products, the company said its variously shaped and sized labels can now be used on jars, bottles and packets. The labels - and subsequent colour changes - are activated when the product is opened.
The label remains green when the product is good to consume, turns amber when the ‘best before’ date has passed (timely given the UK Food Standards Agency’s recent guidance on date labelling ) and red when the ‘use by’ date arrives.
Consumer 'bang for buck'
Nick Richardson, a spokesman for Open Life Packaging told FoodProductionDaily.com that the labels would provide consumers with “more bang for their buck”.
“Sniff tests, taste tests and visual tests are all you can currently go on, whereas the label will absolutely mirror the degradation of that food subject to time and temperature,” he said.
He added:“For instance, when you open your fridge you can see with an amber label saying, ‘consume me now, I’m about to go off’. So that food product becomes natural waste (via consumption) rather than going, with its packaging, to landfill.”
Open Life Packaging had invested £1m in its ‘alpha’ machine alone to produce the new ‘smart’ labels, Richardson said, aside from extra investment in a series of approved European and worldwide patents - that he said had been infringed by at least one competitor - and the business itself.
“The machine is ready to be despatched from the US to the UK. We should receive that in early January and are going through trials as we speak,” he added.
Richardson was guarded about specific industry interest in the labels, but said that Open Life Packaging had received orders and letter of intent for “significant volumes” of labels.
The 2012 launch would see the firm test the marketplace, he said, and concentrate on making a “robust, consistent, reliable” product for automatic (rather than hand) application to different products.
Glossing the science behind Oli-Tec, Richardson said: “I'll give you the 'shop floor' explanation: We’re using various enzymes to ‘eat’ [goo in a capillary] at set speeds dependent on temperature, with different enzymes used at different temperatures.”
Using technology based on the universal indicator – where depending on pH levels a strip changes colour – he added that enzymes would be “hydrated” and begin to eat when the labels are activated by customers opening products.
Richardson said:“The enzymes start to eat, their by-products change the pH level, which in turn changes the colour,” with the speed at which this happens temperature dependent.
“Then what you’ve got is a length of capillary filled with a goo, which is affected also by temperatures,” he added.
Swallowing the cost
At colder temperatures the goo became thicker, Richardson said, while it thinned-out at warmer temperatures. “So this allows them [the enzymes] to eat through this more quickly or slowly, subject to temperature and also the length of the capillary.”
When the enzymes reached certain “points of eating”, plugs were broken down that released food dyes that strengthened the colour from the universal indicator, he added.
Asked who amongst retailers, food manufacturers and consumers would pick up the cost associated with the new labels, Richardson said that industry responses varied.
Retailers were keen to cut the staff costs associated with turning-over stock to try and encourage the sale of older products, and of sending perfectly good foodstuffs shunned by consumers (that eventually go off) to landfill, he said, while there was obvious appeal to consumers in the home.
Richardson said the labels could also be activated within the supply chain: “What could happen in theory is that (and this is the take from the retailers), once it gets to the shelf we see ‘green’ and it is full price. With 3 days left they might take 25% off. With 1 day left it is ‘red’ and we will know it’s due to go off that day, so they’ll knock 50% off.
“The point is the retailers do not have to throw so much away and are getting a return on investment. You and I could also create a different clientele for them, by buying that kind of product [when the label turns red].”
Food firms might also “swallow the cost”, since the intelligent labels could lead to increased sales volumes, Richardson said. “If you talk to a spice manufacturer, ideally they’d like your spices to be renewed every 3-6 months. But how many people have such jars on the shelves for 1-2 years?
He added: “If you have a label on a spice jar saying ‘I’m about to go off’’, what are the chances of someone saying ‘fair enough’, then getting rid and buying another one’?"
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