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Sainsbury’s trialling colour-changing smart label for ham

Sainsbury’s has launched a ‘smart’ label for its own-brand ham that will give consumers a more accurate idea of how fresh the product is in a bid to cut cooked meat food waste.

Sainsbury’s trialling colour-changing smart label for ham
The label changes from yellow to purple based on how long it's been open
Around £13 billion of edible food is thrown away from UK homes every year, and one of the popular and most attainable solutions to reducing this massive figure is to resolve issues with ‘confusing’ labeling.

Currently, dates on labels base freshness on an arbitrary figure determined during the packing stage, condemning huge amounts of food that is still perfectly good to eat to the bin.

This is a particular problem for ham, Sainsbury’s top-selling cooked meat product. Around 1.9 million slices of ham are thrown away every day in UK homes, according to WRAP, weighing as much as three cruise ship anchors, at a cost of more than £170 million a year.

Ham left in open packs can go limp and soggy and develop white spots, which, while not being a threat to the consumer’s health, can put them off, and as Jane Skelton, Head of Packaging at Sainsbury’s points out, it is easy to forget how long a pack of ham has been in the fridge.

“We’ve all been there; when we’ve found a pack of ham loitering on the bottom shelf of the fridge and can’t remember how long it’s been opened for,” said Skelton. “With sliced ham in fridges up and down the country, we wanted to find a way to reduce waste of this family favourite while helping customers save money.”

The new label will change colour from yellow to purple based on how long the pack has been open, giving a more accurate idea of how fresh the ham is and how much longer it can be kept for.

The label is temperature-sensitive, changing colour slower in cooler fridges, as ham, when opened, lasts longest when the fridge it is stored in is kept below 5°C.

Part of the retailer’s £10-million ‘Waste less, Save more’ campaign, the seven-slice cooked ham packaging is now available in every Sainsbury’s store in the country, with a view of extending the range it is used for.

Following a year of testing in the trial town of Swadlincote, Sainsbury’s has taken its food waste reduction campaign nationwide, with the second year focusing in particular on teaching shoppers the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates.

‘Best before’ dates are used by retailers to ensure that they are selling products at the optimum quality to protect brand reputation, but a product going past this date does not mean that it is any less good to eat. ‘Use by’ dates, on the other hand, are guidance for consumers to tell them when a limited-life product will expire and no longer be edible, but even these are estimations, with factors like storage and transport affecting the lifetime of a food product.

To cut down on food waste, Sainsbury’s has also addressed other elements of packaging this year, adding a re-sealable function to 38 products and introducing snap-packs to 14 sausage options, giving people the choice of cooking half and storing the other half without exposing it to the air. In addition, several salad bags have been re-portioned and food waste communication has been included on 70 products.

Smart packaging

The idea of using smarter packaging to provide more accurate information to consumers has been in development for some years. While the Sainsbury’s ham packaging is still an estimation, though a better one than a printed date, based on how long the packet has been opened for, other innovations are going further.

Sainsbury’s trialling colour-changing smart label for ham
Finnish company VTT Technical Research Centre is one of many developing technology to precisely gauge how long a piece of food has before expiration. Embedded in packaging, a sensor developed by VTT can monitor the amount of ethanol, created by food spoilage, in the packaging’s headspace. This reading is then sent wirelessly to an RFID tag printed on the label, which can then be read on a smart phone.

Himadri Majumdar, Senior Research Scientist at VTT, told Resource in 2015: “Food waste is a bigger problem than the packaging waste. This sensor will enable a product to be sold until it is known to be bad based on actual quantitative readings of freshness by the sensor rather than extrapolated printed dates. 

“It will also change the public perception of believing that the food is not consumable after the best-before date. In addition, RFIDs will help monitor and improve the food supply chain more quantitatively so that food is transported and handled in better conditions to maintain its freshness longer.”

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