I’ve never felt especially constrained by expiration dates. I grew up in a household where moldy bits of cheese were simply cut off and milk was submitted to the “sniff” test before we determined it was safe to pour into our coffee. We relied on our senses of sight and smell to tell us when food was off, not the printed date on the package.
But many people do rely on it. A 2016 study found that 84 percent of Americans throw away food based on the date stamped on packages. And that date isn’t necessarily “expires on”; labels like “best by” and “sell by” can confuse consumers on when exactly they should pitch their food.
This confusion can be costly. A study by ReFed found that date labels cost Americans an estimated $30 billion annually. And then there’s food waste. In America, 40% of food goes to waste, nearly two thirds of which happens at home. In the U.K., 20% of consumer food waste is a direct result of label date confusion.
A big issue at play is regulation. Contrary to what you (and many others) might think, date labels aren’t federally regulated. Which means there’s a lot of inconsistency in the process determining when your half & half should be considered past its prime.
A new startup called Mimica is trying to change that by developing food freshness sensors that anyone can understand. Called Mimica Touch, their small labels are filled with gelatine which is calibrated with a mathematical model to have the same shelf life as a particular product. As they deteriorate, the label’s once-smooth surface becomes bumpy to the touch, providing a very hands-on way for consumers to determine if their milk is expired or not without having to use the sniff test.
Mimica founder Solveiga Pakštaitė stumbled upon the idea of a tactile freshness label while working on her industrial design thesis at Brunel University in London. She noticed that visually impaired people had no way of knowing when their food went bad, which was causing them to shy away from purchasing fresh food. So she developed the concept for a label made of a special gel that would mimic the shelf life of different foods which would go from smooth to bumpy when food had gone off.
Pakštaitė filed a patent for the technology. With a little encouragement, she submitted her work for the James Dyson award after graduating in 2014 — and ended up winning. By 2015 she was working on the project full-time, and in 2016 she hired her first scientist. Soon Mimica was looking for a retail partner for their label technology.
There was no shortage of interested parties. “Suppliers and manufacturers wanted to make this thing,” said Pakštaitė. “Retailers had a real need for it too.” She explained that these players feel almost forced to put a short date labels on their products. They know that their supply chains aren’t perfect, and they think the only way to keep customers happy is to shorten the printed dates. But short date labels translate to lost profit when stores have to throw away food that isn’t actually expired but is past its “sell-by” date. Producers also have to pay waste management fees to have expired food taken away, which can add up.
In the end, Mimica decided to partner with Danish dairy giant Arla Foods to launch their bumpy labels. They’re currently focusing on fresh proteins for their labels because they’re high cost, high risk, and have a large impact on the environment. “We had identified milk as a huge opportunity for our product,” said Pakštaitė. “We were also impressed with Arla because they had a really good program for working with startups and a budget to just start things, plus a welcoming attitude towards innovation.”
The Arla pilot is still in the consumer testing phase, but if all goes well the market trial should hit U.K. supermarket shelves in Q3 2018. The Mimica Touch-labeled milk will still have a “date of minimum durability” printed on it, Pakštaitė explained, because it’s required by European law. However, supermarkets could display the furthest possible “expected date” on the milk, because they have the added insurance of the Mimica Touch labels.
Pakštaitė also added that “even if there was a situation where the date was not legally required, it would not be a good idea for us to ‘pull the rug [out from] under people’s feet’ and simply replace the information that they’ve trusted for so long with a totally new system.” Instead they hope that the Mimica Touch labels will work in tandem with traditional expiry dates, offering insurance and context — at least for now.
“60% of the food we throw away in the UK is still perfectly edible,” said Pakštaitė. Mimica Touch has the potential to radically reduce that number. “By bringing in a biologically-accurate indicator, more often not it will prove that our food lasts a lot longer than we think it does.” This could lead to a large-scale behavior change in how we view sell-by dates, and perhaps how we purchase and consume food in general. Most importantly, you would never again have to be surprised by a whiff of past-due milk ever again.