Smart labels let customers trace food to its origins

Customers place a premium on healthy eating and this means that they often don’t only want to know what ingredients are in their food but also where their food comes from and how it was produced. A number of companies in the U.S. and Europe are responding to the demand. For example,when customers type the number printed onto the Fishpeople pouch’s label into their smartphone, a picture of the boat where the fish was caught appears.

Fishpeople’s website shows images of fishermen, fishing boats and fresh catch. This is not surprising for a company that sells seafood meals in flexible pouches. Yet the images are not just illustrations. When customers type the number printed onto the pouch’s label into their smartphone or computer, a picture of the boat where the fish was caught appears. Each pouch can be traced back, promises the company, thus ensuring transparency. An increasing number of companies rely on smart labels to provide traceability of their food products to consumers.

Customers place a premium on healthy eating and this means that they often don’t only want to know what ingredients are in their food but also where their food comes from and how it was produced. A number of companies in the U.S. and Europe are responding to the demand: On their websites, Kellogg and General Mills feature names and profiles of farmers who grow wheat and oats for their cereals. Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club unit recently began putting codes on produce packages that customers can scan with their smartphone to learn where and by whom the food was grown.

The U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) predicts that within five years, 80 % of food, beverage, pet and personal care as well as household products will feature a smart label.

For some companies, providing information about the food’s provenance can be the entry ticket to a new geographic market. Tyson Foods Inc., a U.S. meat and poultry producer, has added a quick-response (QR) code to some of its chicken products. The QR code can be scanned with a smartphone and shows where the poultry or meat comes from. This feature is especially important for the company’s expansion in the Chinese market. Chinese customers are used to buying their food locally and usually very fresh; providing information about the provenance of the food increases trust and chances of success in the new market.

In Italy, the supermarket chain Coop is experimenting with a new store concept in its ‘Supermarket of the Future’. Pasta-maker Barilla is one of the companies displaying new technology. For the project, Barilla worked with Cisco, Penelope S.p.A. and NTT Data to develop QR codes that tell the story of specific production batches. Consumers could scan the code on limited-edition boxes of farfalle pasta to learn the region and date of the durum wheat harvest, see photos of farm families and discover the different varieties available. Barilla also printed QR codes on its tomato and basil sauce. Barilla aims not only at providing more information but also at creating a deeper connection between the customers and the food they eat. At presence, QR codes are the solution that is used by most of the companies but experts say the labels will evolve and become smaller and easier to integrate in the packaging design.

While the marketing advantages of QR codes and smart labels that provide information about ingredients and the provenance of food products are relatively obvious, there is a political issue connected to the debate. Last December, the U.S. the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced that some of the largest food manufacturers and retail stores agreed to provide their customers with access to detailed information about 30,000 of their products through QR codes in their SmartLabel Initiative.

The technology will be available by the end of 2017. The SmartLabel will include ingredients, allergens, animal welfare and environmental policies among others. The most contested issue is, however, the information whether the food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While proponents say the initiative is an important step toward greater transparency, critics say the SmartLabel is used to hide information and discriminates against people who don’t own a smartphone. They say the information should be printed directly onto the packaging and not to be placed solely on a website.