Food waste reduction is now a national priority for the Australian Government. Does this mean change is imminent for food labelling?
Food waste is estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion each year, with Australian consumers throwing away around 3.1 million tonnes of edible food a year. Research indicates Australians bin the equivalent of one in every five trolley loads they buy. And the government is planning to do something about it.
Launched on 20 November, the National Food Waste Strategy aims to halve Australia’s food waste by 2030. When the Minister for the Environment and Energy, Josh Frydenberg, revealed the strategy at the inaugural National Food Waste Summit in Melbourne, he emphasised four priority areas where improvements can be made to target food waste: policy support, business improvements, market development and behaviour change.
Food labelling forms part of the solution – but how?
In his manufacturing predictions for 2018, Matthews Australasia CEO Mark Dingley anticipated that leading food manufacturers will look at designing and implementing voluntary industry standards on food labelling to help meet the food waste reduction target. “New labelling technologies are emerging that may help accelerate progress – for example, providing colour or tactile changes to indicate food is close to use by date,” Dingley said.
On the other side of the globe, the industry is already a few steps ahead. In the UK, businesses are starting to roll out changes to food labelling in a bid to dramatically reduce food waste. Last year, a major UK supermarket, Sainsbury, launched a new “smart” label on packets of its own-brand ham. Why own-brand ham, you might ask? Because figures from the UK government’s waste advisory body, Wrap, revealed that British households throw away a massive 1.9 million slices of ham per day. That’s 32,500 kilograms of ham a year. And all because many buyers find it difficult to remember how long the packet has been open.
The concept is simple: the label changes colour from yellow to purple depending on how long the pack has been open, so consumers can see at a glance how fresh it is. Because an open pack of ham lasts longer when stored below 5C, the label is also temperature-sensitive, with a slower colour change in colder fridges.
That’s just one example of how food labelling can help create positive behaviour changes. By showing consumers how long the ham lasts, they may think twice before throwing out other products too.
Changing consumer behaviour
Consumer education plays a significant role when it comes to reducing food waste, especially around use-by and best-before dates. Date codes are supposed to provide useful advice about when a product is at its best, but some say they are exacerbating the food waste problem. As we explain in this article, date codes are either causing consumer confusion, or they are unintentionally encouraging people to throw out edible food.
In the UK, Wrap is overseeing a major simplification of food labelling to address the issue of confusion, both over date codes and storage. The UK advisory body says that “people really value having information that helps them make better use of their food, particularly on-pack”.
Here are 3 initiatives by Wrap that could be replicated in Australia:
- Simplified date labelling. “Display by”, “best by” and “use by” dates on packaging are being simplified to encourage shoppers to get the most out of their pantry, fridge and freezer.
- Storage advice. Some fresh produce packaging now carries a logo telling consumers which items can be kept in the fridge so they last longer. So, when a consumer see the “little blue fridge” icon on a bag of apples, they know to store the apples in the fridge to keep them fresher for longer. Wrap is also recommending that the freezing snowflake icon on packaging is accompanied with advice to “freeze before the date shown” rather than “freeze on day of purchase”.
- Labelling guidelines for manufacturers. Wrap provides voluntary labelling guidelines for manufacturers and suppliers to make it easier for consumers to understand how to best store and use food products.
Here’s a snapshot of the guidelines:
- Only use one date label: Avoid having two dates (g. “display until”, with another date label) on your product, as this can be confusing.
- Make date labels prominent: Apply the date label in a clear and prominent position, such as the front of pack.
- Storage advice: Provide storage advice on all products with the aim to help consumers make the most of the food they buy. For example, be clear on whether the food is best kept stored in the pack to remain fresher for longer.
Seal of approval
Another way of using food labelling to reduce waste is to help consumers choose the food manufacturers who are making a positive difference. In Denmark, the European champion in food waste reduction, the ReFood labelling scheme helps consumers identify cafés, restaurants and organisations that are making an active effort to reduce food waste. The ReFood Label is essentially a “green seal of approval”, encouraging businesses and consumers to make positive changes.
Labelling and the IIoT
Emerging technologies unlock opportunities to reduce food waste – perhaps none more so than the Internet of Things. With the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the whole supply chain becomes more transparent, meaning there’s potential for any item to be traced at any given time. The IIoT can help reduce food waste during the manufacturing and packaging process too. Data captured by sensors and scanners along the production line allows you to pick up on issues sooner, so you can make changes to improve efficiencies and reduce wastage. (Read more about how track-and-trace can help create the factory of the future. You can also find out more about the IIoT here.)
What next for food labelling?
It’s inevitable there will be changes in food labelling to tackle food waste. But exactly what those changes will be, and when they will happen, nobody yet knows. But one thing is for sure: with the National Food Waste Strategy, we’re moving in the right direction.
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Image credit: iStock / Ildo Frazao