Forward thinkers at High Tech Summit: Jørn Smedsgaard, Professor, Head of Research Group, National Food Institute (DTU Food).
Informative labels on food products are about to become digital and interactive. This will change the way consumers, businesses, and authorities act.
“With more than half the world’s population living in cities, the distance from raw product to consumer product has never been longer. This greatly increases the need for transparency and traceability in the food chains,” argues Jørn Smedsgaard.
In this respect, traceability means a lot more than just measuring the content of various wanted or unwanted substances in a food product, he emphasizes:
“The technology to measure just about anything in food products is developed but the real questions are: How are we to use this technology, who will analyze the data, and how should the conclusions be communicated?”
Here, public authorities are challenged by general societal changes:
“Especially the younger generations tend to confide less in what public bodies have to say, and more in opinions they pick up from their friends, Facebook fora etc.”
Blockchain and interactive labelling
“The funny thing here is that while people follow such often unfounded advice, once things go wrong they still tend to blame the authorities!”
Jørn Smedsgaard does not highlight this paradox only to make us pity the unfair conditions faced by public food authorities.
“There is a genuine need to find better ways to address these issues. With digitization and the power of social media, any unfortunate event may get out of hand very quickly. The brand of a company can be ruined just like that, even if the company formally didn’t do anything wrong but maybe was misled by their supplier.”
The good news is, that technological solutions for building transparency and traceability are being developed at high speed.
“For example, IBM has engaged in developing blockchain based solutions guaranteeing that the information for a given product has not been manipulated somewhere along the line. Also, we see companies like Chinese internet sales giant Alibaba developing interactive labelling. This will allow the consumer – either at his own computer or in a physical store – to instantly access all the relevant data for the production chain of a given product,” Jørn Smedsgaard comments.
Supporting sustainable food production
Notably, such solutions may not only help consumers enjoy better safety for their existing food preferences, but could also encourage a transition towards new products – for instance products that are manufactured with less resource consumption.
“A truly positive trend is innovative solutions for producing food in more sustainable ways. However, if we want to encourage consumers to eat a product which has been fermented in a tank instead of grown on a field, or a novel protein-rich vegetarian product to substitute for meat, confidence will be essential. Without building trust in the origin and safety of such products, consumers will not dare to make the crossing – regardless of the beneficial sustainability profile.”
“It’s no use closing your eyes to the changes. We need to constantly keep up and try to influence the process.”
Professor Jan Madsen, DTU Compute