'Best before": two food-packaging words that are often less informative than they seem. Ideally everyone who ever had custody of your deli slices – producer, distributor, retailer, you – kept them at the right temperature the whole time. But what if they, or you, didn't? Often the issue is settled with the old rule: When in doubt, throw it out.
Solveiga Pakstaite was still an industrial-design student at Britain's Brunel University when she devised a bio-reactive way to eliminate the doubt and reduce unnecessary waste. The 22-year-old's innovation, called Bump Mark, indicates food quality by adding to the packaging a strip of gelatin that degrades at the same rate as the food inside, whether it was kept properly or not.
The gelatin is contained in a triangular, plastic-film label that also includes a strip of bumpy plastic. Initially, the solid gelatin cushions the bumps, so they can't be felt if you run your finger over the label. But as the gelatin decays, it becomes liquid, and the bumps become evident to the touch. If you're feeling bumps on that pack of deli slices – which you can do even if you're sight-impaired – it's time to throw them out.
It's easy to adjust the gelatin to match the perishability of the packaged food, Pakstaite says on the phone from Britain. "You simply alter the concentration. The weaker the jelly, the more perishable it is." Gelatin makes a good marker, she says, because it's a protein, "so it decays at the same rate as protein-based foods." Her formulations so far have all used animal gelatin, but she plans to use plant sources to satisfy vegans and vegetarians, and for greater sustainability.
Bump Mark, which won a James Dyson Award for design in September, has already been tested for consumer acceptance in one British chain supermarket. About three-quarters of customers who saw the label and were told about its function said they'd prefer the technology to best-before dates. Further tests and technical work will be needed before it goes into production, says Pakstaite, who recently recorded a TED talk about Bump Mark.
British households waste 4.2 tonnes of food every year, according to a report published in 2012. Much of that comes from supermarkets that increasingly offer the own-brand foods that make up more than half of what passes through the country's check-outs. Ninety-six per cent of meat and fish sold to British consumers, and 80 per cent of deli products, are own-brand, according to the Nielsen Global Survey of Private Label.
Not surprisingly, Pakstaite and her business adviser are looking for partnerships with the likes of Marks & Spencer, whose food operation is entirely own-brand. Pakstaite is negotiating a deal with an unnamed British chain.
Even when Bump Mark is ready for its full supermarket debut, British law would still require that best-before dates be present on the packaging. A complete industry shift to Bump Mark would ultimately depend on a change in legislation, in Britain and in any other country with compulsory best-before labelling – including Canada, where consumer food waste topped $31-billion last year.
"It's a long slog," Pakstaite says. "Initially my plan was to sell Bump Mark to someone who could develop it further, and then move on to the next design. But I'm really interested to learn what it takes to get a design on the market. It's going to make me a better designer to have heard the concerns of packagers and retailers."
If she can really get Bump Mark into the marketplace, less food would be wasted, and in turn less energy will be used to produce, ship, package and dispose of food that is never eaten. That's a goal for which there is no best-before date.