Horizon scanning – food labelling, what does the future hold?

Food labels have undergone a dramatic change in the last few years, most recently with the introduction of the UK Food Information Amendment, otherwise known as Natasha’s Law.

So, with the clammer for more and more information to be provided for the consumer and the worldwide aim for a reduction in packaging it remains to be seen where exactly this additional information is going to be shown.

To date, a label or the food packaging must carry the below information as a minimum based on the legislation that it attracts:

Some eagle-eyed consumers may have noticed that there is a pilot scheme running around ECO labelling, highlighting the sustainability of products. The businesses involved are Costa, Marks & Spencer, Greencore, Meatless Farm and Finnebrogue Artisan, who have had some of their products scored during this pilot phase to include front-of-pack ‘Foundation Earth’ labels that highlight their sustainability measurements, shown below:

The concept around this is that products will be graded into tiers marked A to G and colour-coded, with green reserved for the most environmentally friendly items and red for the least, based on a system developed by the environmental consultancy Mondra. Detail on this is sparse but it promises to compare products “on their individual merits via a complete product life cycle analysis as opposed to simply using secondary data”.

An intensive nine-month research and development programme, funded by Nestlé, will look to knit together two different systems of environmental scoring – the Mondra system and one funded by EIT Food, which involves a consortium of Belgium’s Leuven University and Spanish research agency AZTI. The two systems have “significant” similarities, according to those close to both approaches. This method assesses a products environmental impact by assessing the farming, processing, packaging, and transport. The impacts are weighted 49% to carbon and 17% each for water usage, water pollution and biodiversity loss.

The fundamental problem with a consumer-facing label is that you often can’t get the data from the supply chain in a scalable way.

Added to the above ECO labelling is the information we already see like nutrition and recommended daily intake information, shown below:

This begs the question, how can any more information be added to food that is packaged in a 10x8cm wrapper or box and still meet the minimum font height requirements (x-height of 0.9mm), whilst remaining legible and informative?

The answer may lie in QR codes; a feature widely used during the pandemic by the hospitality industry to display menus, order goods and make payment.

There may be concerns over a global roll out of QR codes for some or all the information discussed above e.g., some people less fortunate don’t have access to smart phones and some generations don’t own one. The global smartphone penetration rate is estimated to have reached over 78 percent in 2020* and 87% of adults in the UK owned smartphones in 2020** so it is very likely this will continue to increase to over 90%.

We already rely on the internet and handheld mobile devises for so many day-to-day tasks that the next step in food label technology will likely be to incorporate all information in a QR code that does not overcomplicate the packaging and impact printing costs.

With the global fight against obesity still prevalent and law enforcers putting a lot of responsibility in the hands of the food industry, it is time for us to work towards a goal where we are all:

  • Eating healthier
  • Have more information on animal welfare
  • Understand the sustainability of the food we eat
  • Understand the composition of the food we eat
  • And perhaps more important, have confidence that the food we are eating is exactly what it says it is.

It has become apparent that consumers want to know exactly what is in their food. They read the ingredients carefully, especially the increasing number of food hypersensitive consumers, and are also very concerned about animal welfare, with many wanting some nutritional information.

QR codes on packaging would be a logical next step in the food industry, however other factors should be addressed with stakeholders and or government bodies, such as internet connectivity and phone signal in remote and rural areas, which is still an issue for many. Disadvantaged and homeless people would also likely be affected if they are dyslexic or unable to read, however may still need access to this information to stay alive. Although the QR code is an obvious solution, we need to ensure that we include alternative options for consumers who are unable to access a QR code.


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Published on December 23rd, 2021

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