Consumers are embracing milk carton QR codes, which may reduce food waste

Just like dot matrix printers or pay phones, “used” and “best” dates printed on milk cartons and gallon jugs may soon become a thing of the past, making way for more accurate and useful QR codes.

A new study at Cornell University has found that consumers will use QR codes – to better depict how long they can drink milk and dramatically reduce agricultural and food waste.

Food science doctoral student Samantha Lau who works in the lab of Martin Weidmann, the Gilert family professor of food safety at the college, said US dairy products are among the top three food groups with the largest share of food waste. Agriculture and life sciences.

In early spring, Lau also works with the Cornell Milk Quality Improvement Program, which is associated with Cornell Dairy Bar — which sells liquid milk as well as ice cream on campus. She wanted to assess consumer acceptance of QR code technology that might one day replace fixed or commonly sold dates in food products.

Customers had a choice: buy milk with printed dates or buy containers with QR codes, which, when scanned with a smartphone, will display the best date.

In the same Cornell Dairy Bar study, Lau instituted a dynamic pricing component in which consumers were encouraged to buy milk with a shorter remaining shelf life—by offering a discount on the price as the best date approached.

“During the two-month study, more than 60% of customers purchased milk using a QR code, which shows great interest in using this new technology,” Lau said. “This showed that using QR codes on food products could be an innovative way to tackle the larger problem of food waste.”

For liquid milk, ensuring quality and accurately portraying the expected shelf life are key, but bacterial spoilage is a major contributor to food loss and waste globally, said Lau, lead author of a related scientific paper published earlier this spring.

Because of consumer confusion about when to throw it out of the fridge and retailers left with an unsold product, liquid milk is responsible for about 65% of dairy food waste — a loss that costs nearly US$6.4 billion annually, according to the newspaper.

The environment is also affected. The production, processing, and transportation of liquid milk around the world is responsible for 5.3 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per pound of milk, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

“We need to put more effort into the entire food system, rather than just focusing on a single ingredient,” said Weidmann, who also directs the Milk Quality Improvement Program and is a faculty fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

He said helping consumers eliminate less food by providing them with “better times” and more accurate information up to when food products are consumed has huge potential to save consumers money and reduce environmental impact.

With dates printed on cartons, consumers typically buy the furthest milk, but that leaves the drinkable milk on store shelves, where retailers throw it away at a later date, Weidmann said.

“This makes digital trends valuable, especially if they are combined to really allow us to collect data along the food chain,” he said.

Not only can QR codes accurately inform consumers about drinkability and dynamic pricing, he said, but the technology exists where smart milk cartons can communicate with smart refrigerators to inform the family of the need for fresh milk.

Smart refrigerators can eventually tell consumers about a proposed recipe that uses products in the refrigerator that are nearing the end of their shelf life, he said, “This kind of infrastructure for a new digital food system can reduce food waste.”

In addition to Lau and Wiedmann, co-authors of the paper, “Development of a Monte Carlo simulation model to predict spoilage of pasteurized liquid milk due to post-pasteurization contamination with Gram-negative bacteria,” published in March in Dairy Science, postdoctoral researchers Aljosa Trmcic and Sara Murphy, Ph.D. ’20 (corresponding author); and Nicole H. Martin ’06, MS 11, Ph.D. 18, Assistant Director of the Milk Quality Improvement Program.

Funding for this research was provided by the Food and Agriculture Research Foundation and the New York State Milk Promotion Advisory Board.

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