Consumers positive about smart shelf life indicator on packaging

December 14, 2020

​Consumers recognise the added value of a Keep-it shelf-life indicator for fresh products in a meal box. This was the main outcome of a study among almost 1,500 customers of HelloFresh, carried out by Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. The smart-sensor technology of Keep It® measures the storage temperature under which a product is kept from production onwards, and shows the remaining days of shelf life. It allows consumers to discard a product, when it really is unfit for consumption. The insights from this study research contribute to a discussion about the use of smart shelf life indicators on packaging.

According to the Dutch Commodities Act, the date of minimum durability must be indicated on the package, following strict rules. Earlier research indicated that consumers often mistake the meaning of Use-by or Best-before date marking, and they frequently err upon acting accordingly. As a result, consumers discard products too early to be on the safe side, while these would still be perfectly good for consumption.

A smart shelf life sensor can help consumers making better decisions. "Various retailers in Norway have been using the Keep-it® indicator since 2013," says Gertrude Zeinstra, project coordinator and researcher at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. "We wanted to know whether Dutch and Flemish consumers would also be open to it, how they would handle it and whether they understand how the indicator works."

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Testing at home

The researchers conducted a pilot experiment among nearly 1,500 customers of HelloFresh, market leader in distributing meal boxes in The Netherlands. The test group (421 households) received their meal box at home with a Keep-it® indicator on the fresh salmon packaging. They also received a flyer about the indicator and general date marking information. The legally-required Use-by date was printed on the packaging, and it was clearly stated this date was leading. The control group (1,064 households) did not receive a Keep-it® indicator on their pre-packed salmon: they received a flyer with general date-marking information.

Both groups answered questions via an online survey, about their perceptions, experiences and expectations with regard to the indicator. The control group saw a picture of the Keep-it® indicator and a short explanation in the survey. The researchers also asked about the possible added value of the indicator in preventing food waste.

Trusting the smart shelf life indictor

In general, both groups were positive about the Keep-it® indicator. Between 60%-90% of the respondents agreed that the indicator was positive, reliable, useful, intuitive, value-adding and not confusing. The test group gave higher ratings than the control group for most aspects of the indicator, probably because they had seen the indicator in real life. 86% of the participants in the test group had actually seen the indicator. Of that group, the vast majority understood what the indicator was stating.  

Less food waste

The study shows that the indicator also has potential in food waste reduction. “76%  thought that the indicator would help them waste less food," says Zeinstra. The researchers asked participants what they normally do when meat, fish, dairy or ready meals are beyond their expiry date (without Keep-it® indicator). They compared these answers to answers to the question of what they would do if a product was beyond the expiry date but, according to Keep-it® indicator still had 2 remaining days of shelf life. The number of participants who would still eat the product increased from a small 2% (without Keep-it® indicator) to 20% (Keep-it® indicator showed 2 remaining days of shelf life).

With the indicator, more participants indicated that they would smell and look first, and less participants would discard the product immediately. Future research, over a longer period of time and with more and different products, could provide additional insight on the potential of smart sensor technology in food waste reduction.

Changing the rules in the game against food waste

Food Waste Free United, the ecosystem in which the Dutch business community, government, civil organisations and knowledge institutes are working together to keep an extra 1 billion kilos of food within the chain every year, welcomes the research. Toine Timmermans, Director of the foundation: "Regulations sometimes stand in the way of preventing food waste. Where safe and possible, we need to change those rules. Permitting smart sensor technologies shows promise, especially now we see that consumers are positive about the Keep-it® indicator and understand  it well. That is why we will continue discussions with the government and companies in the supply chain to investigate whether smart-sensor technology can be applied more widely in The Netherlands."

Stimulating innovation

For the research, HelloFresh made use of a voucher scheme from Samen Tegen Voedselverspilling (Together Against Food Waste), intended for innovations aimed at reducing food waste and valorising residual flows (project number BO-43-002.02-005). Wageningen Food & Biobased Research implements this scheme on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.​