Tech-Enabled Smart Labels Help Fight Food Waste

By: Lee Rickwood

January 19, 2021

Writing recently about the new privacy “nutrition labels” Apple now requires from all developers who sell products on the App Store, little did I realize what would be revealed.

food label changes presented

Canada’s physical, paper-based food labels are being updated as part of a five year process to provide important information in an easy-to-read format. New labels made from electrosensitive materials can be updated in real-time. Government of Canada website image.

The vociferous reaction to the story was not so much about privacy, sadly, but about real food labels!

It seems that grocery shoppers, consumer researchers, industry technologists and more all have problems with the current food labelling system, be it nutrition labels or best-before dates. 

The labels are confusing, they say. The best-before dates are inconsistently used or applied. Best-before dates and expiration dates are not the same (as all shoppers know, right?).

Worse still, bad labels and confusing messages about what we eat can — and when — leads to enormous, even scandalous, amounts of food waste.

Many label watchers argue that the variety of date labels used by food manufacturers can lead to confusion about food quality and food safety among consumers. Researchers are calling for uniformity in date labeling as a way to reduce food waste. 

several meat packages with smart labels

Technology can help reduce food waste by enabling real-time quality monitoring of food and the display of dynamic expiry dates on food packages. Shoppers can easily see the differently placed checkmarks.

So rather than labels for apps, let’s talk about the growing field of smart labels for food, other consumer products, even industrial processes: labels that can be used to monitor the product inside and to collect data about it. Smart labels can respond to external triggers or changes, some can sense ambient or environmental changes and respond accordingly. Some newly developed smart labels can connect wirelessly to sources of power and contextual information that is be displayed, updated and adjusted as needed.

Two international technology companies have recently announced a partnership in which they will develop what are called “printed intelligent expiry labels” or “dynamic expiry date labels”.

The goal is to significantly reduce food waste by enabling real-time quality monitoring of food and the display of dynamic expiry dates on food packages.

Swedish dynamic sensor label maker Innoscentia is working with B.C.-based printed electronics pioneer Ynvisible Interactive on the project.

meat package, smart label, smartphones

New dynamic sensor-based labels can be used to monitor food freshness in real-time, with analog and digital display options  updated on an as-needed basis. Note the progression of dates on these sample labels.

Innoscentia has developed dynamic sensor-based food labels that monitor freshness in real-time, with analog and digital display solutions.

That’s a big plus for food shoppers, obviously, but the labels also create possibilities for food tracing, whether for safety, security or other marketplace reasons. Smart labels can be connected to supplementary digital monitoring platforms, such as inventory and price control systems, following other big tech trends in the food industry. Collected data also help inform consumer trend analysis, product popularity, and market penetration reports.

Ynvisible is a leader in the emerging field of printed and flexible electronics. Building on its experience and IP in electrochromic materials, inks and systems, the company can produce interactive printed graphics and other displays and indicators for everyday smart objects and IoT devices.

Electrochromic materials can change colour when hit by a small electrical current, like in a chemical chain reaction. Both the colour and certain properties of the material can change in this way, allowing for a myriad of new applications, such as smart windows, textiles and displays.

single meat package with smart label

Technology is enabling real-time quality monitoring of the food and the dynamic labelling of expiry dates. The text and icon in the lower left change colour as an indication of freshness.

The company describes how its new types of labelling and interactive printed graphics for retail display applications are dependent on key factors such as low power consumption (which enables wireless powering), flexibility (for label-like form factors), low production cost and easily scalable – important for many new technologies.

Rather than fixed expiry date estimates being printed directly on food containers or packages, Innoscentia has developed materials that combine with the Ynvisible display, enabling real-time quality monitoring of the food and the dynamic labelling of expiry dates.

“We are very pleased to be able to join forces with Ynvisible to fuel the development of our digital sensor labels, explained Erik Månsson, CEO of Innoscentia in a release. “After recent breakthroughs with our sensors, we are now ready to take the next step to produce a prototype, and we believe Ynvisible to be the optimal partner for this because of their experience and cutting-edge technology within printed displays and electronics. The results of the project will hopefully move us a big step closer towards disrupting the current labelling system of food and help us create a more sustainable food value chain in the future,”

Besides choosing Ynvisible’s display technology, Innoscentia is currently using Ynvisible’s R&D services for the label development, including system design and adapting the sensor for large scale production with printing processes.

“Providing smart-labels for retail, logistics, and premium products is a key business platform for Ynvisible. With Innocentia, we recognize that by helping firms to achieve the highest levels of product freshness through scalable IoT packaging solutions, we can help unlock added value through to the end-user and minimize food waste,” added Jani-Mikael Kuusisto, CEO of Ynvisible.

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clothes label and smartphone show same graphic display

Ynvisible demonstrated a wireless, press-the-Smiley customer feedback smart label and smartphone app at a retail industry conference.

Ynvisible’s electrochromic (EC) display technology was used as a fun and interactive feedback collection tool at a recent retail industry conference: using the company’s ultra low-power visual indicator displays and terminals, the HappyOrNot real-time customer analysis firm showed how it could gather customer intelligence in many ways, such as a completely wireless, easy-to-use, press-the-Smiley customer feedback app.

# # #

smartphone and vodka bottles

A toast to the smart interactive label, such as the programmable LEDs on some liqour bottles. Image provided by Medea.

So yes, even labels evolve thanks to technology. We are now seeing smart labels being used for food safety. We have seen tech-enabled labels used for marketing and promotion purposes. And we are (hopefully) reading labels that help us protect our personal information, if not our ethical standards.

Is there a chance that all generally available products, consumer technology and digital gadgetry will be labelled with comprehensive tech specs, detailed privacy information and expected moral outcomes from usage?

Now that would be smart.

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1 comment

  1. leerickwood@rogers.com' Lee Rickwood says:

    Ynvisible has announced it’s building up its war chest since this story was published.
    The company has received proceeds from private placement financing and common share purchase warrants to total nearly $10 million, which will be used to drive further development and productization efforts.

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