Date tampering in food stores is in the news again, and horrified consumers want to know how it can be stopped.
Over the last 12 months, reports from B.C., Ontario, Alberta and Quebec suggest store employees have been asked to repurpose food products and change expiry dates. Products include dairy, meats, and even fish and seafood. The changed dates vary from as little as one day to as much as two months.
Consumers can blame regulators and industry alike. However, food fraud has been around for thousands of years, so it seems inevitable that it will require technology, not humans, to put an end to it.
Tampering with dates is wrong, and repackaging food to extend its shelf life is illegal in Canada and many other places in the western world.
But even with laws in place, food fraud is a widespread problem. In fact, it is even worse in Europe, where not a week goes by without reports of fraudulent labels. Sausages, pies, jams, processed food at all levels have been evaluated in many studies showing troubling results.
However, some food-related chains are doing something about it. Since 1974, barcodes have allowed better traceability across global food supply chains. And now GS1, the non-profit organization that assigns the unique numbers in barcodes, has developed a double-layered barcode called the Data Bar. The new set of data on each product includes more details like expiry date, quantity, and batch or lot number.
German retailer Metro just launched PRO Trace, a smartphone app that displays all the information consumers need at the point of purchase. This app allows a consumer to verify when and where a fish was caught, and when and where it was processed. Metro’s app allows consumers to validate information showcased in stores in real time.
Metro also sells food in bulk to small businesses such as restaurants and hotels. With this very affordable app, these customers can now guarantee the content they display on menus, so the technology protects the ultimate food consumers on another level.
Without better technology, we can always have more publicly-funded monitoring of food sales by regulators, and it could make a difference. But it could also increase the cost of food and decrease distribution efficiencies — and that’s hardly desirable in an age of higher food prices.
Arming consumers with shopping technology will force the entire food supply chain to become more disciplined, and accountable to consumers and itself.
Food fraud should also kickstart conversation about another important retail issue – food waste. An increasing number of consumers are concerned about food waste and are willing to act on it. Retail transparency should prevail in an effort to reduce such waste. For example, Loblaws, Sobeys, Metro and many independents have responded to consumer concern by selling ugly vegetables at lower prices.
With better technology in the hands of the consumer, food fraud will dissipate. But food fraud is just the beginning. GS1 believes consumers want more information on nutritional values, ingredients, allergens, organic certification, environmental impact, ethical standards used on farms, alongside many other emerging issues.
Better technology can serve market-driven expectations, but with increasing amounts of data required, current barcodes won’t be enough. We may see a different kind a barcode in the near future to open the door to more information.
The end result will be safer products on the shelves, and a better consumer-retailer relationship. Repurposing food and changing expiry dates is not good for business and it’s not good for consumers. Technology can help ensure that consumers are buying what they want and deserve.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
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