Doctor Vlad Sljapic has a vision. He wants to see QR (quick response) code labels on all the food we buy. Those small squares of black and white blobs are appearing on nearly everything else these days on product packaging and shop displays, in e-mails and on websites. Once read by your smartphone, they take you directly to emails, websites, phone numbers and more. Even London Underground posters carry QR codes to promote its bus timetables.
QR codes are a type of two-dimensional barcode that can carry a lot of data. So why not put them on food, asks Sljapic?
Imagine going into a supermarket and picking up a punnet of strawberries with a QR code on the label. You scan it with your mobile phone to link to the supermarket's website. There you find out how the strawberries were organically grown. You see an interactive map of where they came from, persuading you that the number of food miles has been kept to a minimum. You may even see a picture of the farmer who has grown them. And a picture of Daisy the cow who fertilised the ground on which they grew.
All this, says Sljapic, will give the consumer a lovely warm, fuzzy story about how those strawberries have been grown and cared for and loved. A marketing dream!
Stephen Lloyd also has a vision. He sees a future in which injection-moulded plastic food pots and tubs can be recycled in to food-grade polypropylene plastic thanks to the use of removable in-mould labels (IMLs). In-mould labelling uses pre-printed polypropylene labels that are moulded onto the pots and tubs as they are made. When the pots are ground up for recycling, the labels are ground up with them, producing grey or black pellets of recycled polypropylene, which are unfit for food use because of contamination by the label colours.
However, a patent-pending process for making in-mould labels removable can now help recyclers separate labels and pots, providing them with a huge new market for food-grade recycled polypropylene. Green dream, perhaps?
Sljapic is sales director for digital printing at Domino Printing Sciences. A basic requirement in the food industry is traceability, he says. But today it is no longer good enough to be able to know that a particular food item has been produced in a particular factory on a particular line. "Remember the E.coli scare last summer about cucumbers from Spain? How much money did the supermarkets lose because they could not tell which cucumber had come from where?"
Sljapic believes QR code labels are the answer. They can be used to trace where every item of food has come from. But supermarkets are not in favour of them, he says. "They believe they will cost money and complicate their world."
He thinks they're wrong. Take that punnet of strawberries, for example. "The trick the industry is missing is that QR codes can give traceability down to individual packet level, giving a promotional opportunity to latch on to the demand from consumers to learn more about where their food is coming from."
Last year, for example, Heinz put QR codes on its ketchup bottles in US restaurants to promote its new greener packaging. The codes linked to a site where users could win prizes. Heinz says more than 1M consumers scanned the codes.
The main problem, says Sljapic, is a lack of awareness of what QR codes can do. Also, although the various technologies needed to create and print variable QR codes have been around for some time, it is only now that they are all coming together into cost-effective packages. "We will see more and food producers and supermarkets using QR code labels, not only to bring more information to the customer, but also to capture the customers and their habits.
"In Waitrose, say, they are going to talk about the fertilisation of a cow named Daisy because that is the kind of message a typical Waitrose customer likes to have. At Tesco, on the other hand, when you scan the QR code label, you might get a price comparison."
The only thing that limits the use of QR codes is our imagination, says Sljapic. "The technology exists. The mechanism is there for us to access more and more information about our food."
Lloyd is director of marketing at Systems Labelling, which supplies a range of label types. IMLs are a growing trend in the UK, he says. They are typically used for pots and tubs for yellow fats (spreads), creams, soups, pasta, sauces, and ice cream. They are made of the same material as the pot or tub, polypropylene, and moulded at 230°C at the same time as the tub, in the injection moulding tool.
The main reason for their growing popularity is cost, says Lloyd. "With self-adhesive labels, for example, you have got three layers. There's the liner, which carries the self-adhesive label. And the label itself has typically white or clear polypropylene substrate. Once printed, it will be over-laminated, certainly for the food sector, to encapsulate the inks." But with IMLs there is no adhesive, no over-laminate. It's just a single core material, which makes it cheaper, he says.
Yet the increasing use of IMLs gives recyclers a headache because they can't remove the label, they are moulded to the pots. "So we have developed (patent pending) a removable IML called R-IML. It can be produced and moulded as a normal IML label with the same tooling and temperatures. It can still be microwaved, frozen, and chilled. But it can be removed after use."
When the polypropylene pots are granulated during recycling, the removable label parts company from plastic pot. The label granules are lighter than the pot granules, and air is used to blow the label granules up to the top of the tank to be piped away. The heavier, clear plastic material sinks to the bottom of the tank.
"We have introduced a barrier material that enables the label to be moulded to the pot in minuscule pockets, rather than 100% complete coverage. When the pot is granulated, the label separates. If you stick one of these pots in a kitchen blender and switch it on, the label and the plastic pot part company completely. And it works in an industrial granulator."
This enables recyclers to reclaim clear polypropylene flakes as opposed to grey or black ones, he claims, giving them food-grade recycled polypropylene.
It is getting a lot of interest here and in the US, says Lloyd. But the market as a whole needs to move towards this before it will take off. "Recyclers work on a volume basis and in the UK there are only three or four that process polypropylene. And they are not interested if just one supermarket goes down this route. We need a wholesale shift to removable IMLs."
Despite the marketing dreams and the green dreams, the business of coding, marking and labelling food has always been about legislation, says Paul Doody, marketing director at Linx Printing Technologies. "Nobody wants to put a code on their product. Inherently, it doesn't add any value. It just provides a degree of assurance in case anything goes wrong."
And as food labelling legislation continues to develop it will continue to be the prime driver behind labelling requirements, says Doody. However, he agrees that as coding technologies develop "we will start to see some value-added trends: not just sticking a data code on, but something that adds real value to the consumer, and the producer".
The latest EU legislation on the provision of food information to customers means that, from December 2014, much more information about where all the ingredients come from will have to go on the food package. This represents a big change in the amount of information that has to be presented to the consumer, says Doody.
"At the moment on a typical application, there may well be just a use-by date or a best-before date, date of production, production site, line number and time of manufacture. If we now have to start putting information on about where the different ingredients come from, then it gets much more complex. It means the traditional laser and continuous ink jet printer may need to be supplemented by additional printing technologies. Or they may have to be replaced with something that is capable of printing all this information in one fell swoop."
The bigger manufacturers of foodstuffs will generally have stable sources of supply and will be geared up to having different labels ready, depending on where their ingredients are coming from, he says. But smaller manufacturers that buy ingredients on open markets or commodity markets will be hit. Even the larger firms that are looking to get a better price on their nutrients, say, will be affected, he says.