when your food label is bumpy, you must toss it
October 28, 2014 11:00 AM   Subscribe

A WaPo profile of industrial design student Solveiga Pakštaitė and her latest invention, a bio-reactive food expiry label called Bump Mark: Landfills are overflowing with food. Here's a gelatin label that could limit the waste.
Misleading labels are one reason that consumers waste nearly 40 percent of the food they buy — and one of the inspirations behind Bump Mark, a new bio-based food label made with gelatin. As the food in a package starts to decay, so does the gelatin; when it finally expires, the gelatin reveals a layer of bumps. If the label is still smooth, a consumer finally knows unequivocally that food is still safe to eat... By changing the concentration of gelatin, the designer can match the label to specific foods. A weak concentration breaks down faster, and works for foods such as milk and meats that don't last as long. For any given food, the label can be adjusted to degrade at exactly the same rate.

Until Bump Mark is officially introduced in the market, please check Still Tasty (previously) for the canonical answer to the eternal question.

Previously: Should I eat that?
posted by divined by radio (42 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Is that title a Devo reference?
posted by stenseng at 11:05 AM on October 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


This should clear up like, what, half of AskMe?
posted by resurrexit at 11:10 AM on October 28, 2014 [21 favorites]


Other than a throwaway quote from the designer, is there any indication that the breakdown of the gelatin actually has a relationship with food spoilage? I understand that they're expecting manufacturers to tailor the rate of decay to the product, but you'd think that a thin film of gelatin would be more susceptible to temperature fluctuations than, say, eight pounds of milk, throwing the whole thing off.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:24 AM on October 28, 2014 [11 favorites]


It's a neat idea, but why the landfill framing? If the problem is "food in landfills" the solution is not "teach people precisely WHEN to put the food in the landfill". The solution is "teach people to compost/use a garbage disposal".
posted by DU at 11:26 AM on October 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


1) How do I know that the label is still good?

2) Couldn't a manufacturer just make a label that decayed at a faster/slower rate depending on when they wanted you to buy more product?
posted by maryr at 11:26 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


(I mean, I would hope that it's been tested and proven, but it seems a bit like a design thought experiment.)
posted by uncleozzy at 11:27 AM on October 28, 2014


Coming to an AskMe soon: can I eat this bumpy gelatin label?
posted by resurrexit at 11:28 AM on October 28, 2014 [14 favorites]


(Also, isn't milk a spectacularly bad lead in for this? It's one of the few products that does seem to go 'bad' (as in smell funny, at least) about when the package predicts.)
posted by maryr at 11:28 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


This...feels like it's making people even more dependent on manufacturers being honest about freshness dates. I'd rather just educate myself. It's not rocket surgery; half of the stuff that goes bad can be detected with eye/sniff tests.

(Good for the blind, maybe? I'm being totally serious here.)

Also, I can imagine that there are veg*ans who would have issues with this form of packaging.
posted by offalark at 11:29 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


So, the manufacturers who today print labels with expiry dates are going to switch to printing labels with expiry materials and this change in process is going to somehow inspire them to change how long they want the label to tell a consumer to eat the food inside? Yea, sure.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:45 AM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


"For any given food, the label can be adjusted to degrade at exactly the same rate."
Utter horseshit. You can't even get both sides of the food in the container to degrade at the same rate. Two different media in two slightly different locations with different air exposures? Impossible to guarantee a match.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:46 AM on October 28, 2014 [15 favorites]


just smell or taste the food!
posted by kuatto at 11:48 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


The most dramatic reduction in food wastage from spoilage imaginable would come from widespread adoption of irradiation treatment for food. Unfortunately 1950s SciFi-based popular misconceptions about radiation pretty much put paid to that technology.
posted by yoink at 11:52 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Is that title a Devo reference?

It is indeed.

Good for the blind, maybe? I'm being totally serious here.

Yep, that's what inspired the designer to invent it. From the James Dyson Award page:
I wanted to create a solution for enabling visually impaired consumers to gain expiry information about their food, as currently the only indication is a printed date. From the start, I knew that the solution must appeal to sighted people also, because the sad reality is that new solutions only get implemented by companies if the benefits are useful to the majority.

This is why I worked to create a cheap solution that could be applied to existing food packages and also provides information that even sighted people haven't had access to before: information about the actual condition of food.
I can imagine that there are veg*ans who would have issues with this form of packaging.

Agreed, although I'm vegan, I've been that way for almost half my life, and I'm planning on staying that way permanently, and I think this is incredibly cool. I'm growing more cantankerous by the year, so I'm increasingly given to despairing about Young People, but whenever I hear about their energetic young minds coming up with stuff like this (Solveiga Pakštaitė is only 22!) and I get all excited to see what kind of crazy things they'll be coming up with next.

Just speaking for myself, I wouldn't feel great about purchasing a product that had a gelatin label on it, but seeing how unlikely it is that we'll be able to get rid of the factory farm-industrial complex anytime soon, gelatin is very likely to remain cheap and in abundant supply for years to come, and this is a pretty nifty way to help use it up. Mostly I just thought Bump Mark was a fresh, hopeful take on reinventing our current (basically useless) static expiry date labels, which are obviously confusing to consumers and continuing to inspire millions of people to chuck out perfectly good food by the metric ton.

Maybe adding a tactile aspect to the experience might help people stop throwing away food without even checking to see if it's still edible, like they're doing today, I have no idea. But my "people on MeFi are probably going to hate this idea and tear it to shreds" impulse was temporarily overwhelmed by my "raising awareness of the myriad ridiculous reasons that we waste food is a net good" impulse and here we are.

Coming to an AskMe soon: can I eat this bumpy gelatin label?

QFT.
posted by divined by radio at 11:54 AM on October 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'd rather just educate myself. It's not rocket surgery;

I suppose you're right. I'd like to think this would decrease the number of arguments with my wife about if food is still ok to eat (my side of the argument is essentially Homer and his sandwich in Selma's Choice) but it would just move the argument to whether Big Gelatin knows what the hell it's talking about.
posted by yerfatma at 11:56 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


just smell or taste the food!

I'd just like to point out again that this idea is one of those strange bits of common wisdom that is almost categorically untrue.

Food that smells or tastes off is definitively bad. Food that doesn't isn't necessarily safe; not all pathogens/forms of spoilage produce off odours or flavours at the same rate they make food toxic.

These labels seem to be less than useless. Even if manufacturers are a) honest, and b) give a crap, they could only calibrate the degradation time along a sort of optimal curve, which won't take into account different temperatures in/outside, the spoiling effects of light, moist vs dry conditions, etc.

In other words, they'd be doing exactly what is done now: best guess (modulo how often they want you to buy the product) with a date slapped on somewhere. No way are they going to go for a more expensive solution. As said above, if the identified problem is food going into landfills, the solution is to divert food from landfills, not come up with more expensive and thus never-adopted labeling schemes.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:58 AM on October 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


I think most of the food I personally waste comes about because there's too much food for me in the package. Especially for meat, it seems like food sizes are optimized for two or more people. I'm cook for myself and I can't guarantee I'll be cooking the same thing three days in a row.

Single or double chicken thighs in biodegradable wrapping would be excellent.

A half-bag of mixed salad in a biodegradable bag would be divine.
posted by tychotesla at 11:59 AM on October 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


I've more than once bought food with a "Use By" date that was wrong (i.e., the food was spoiled well before the date). So yeah, not too keen on trusting anyone.

And yes, it's a life skill, much like cooking or knowing where your food comes from to begin with. In my household, I clear out the fridge and do the appropriate sniff and eyeball tests, but my husband still knows if the broccoli is black and fuzzy, it's time to throw it on the compost pile.

I also use a Foodsaver, which greatly increases the shelf-life of all my meats and cheeses. If I went by the "use-by" date for all that stuff, I'd be throwing things out left and right.
posted by offalark at 12:08 PM on October 28, 2014


I'll join the others who say that they would rather trust their eyes and nose than manufacturers. However, I can say without equivocation that you should NOT eat cream cheese marked "USE BY AUGUST 14" when it is October. (It smelled and looked fine, honest.)
posted by desjardins at 12:30 PM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


While I'm here, I have a probably dumb question about landfills: Why is food a problem? Doesn't it decay or get eaten by animals? Whether you eat it or not, you still have to throw out the packaging and that seems to create much more of a long-term problem. So wouldn't the solution be to buy less packaged food in the first place? (Or reducing/recycling the packaging.)
posted by desjardins at 12:34 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think the landfill thing is a bit of a red herring. The issue is that we're using all these resources to produce, package, ship, store, and sell food that doesn't get eaten.
posted by muddgirl at 12:40 PM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


I don't have a sense of smell, so I pretty much have to go by the "sell by" date. Looks don't tell you much, considering something has to be pretty putrid before it looks off. You also have to remember to look in the first place. I used to only drink out of cups with covers/straws on them, and one time I ended up forcing myself to drink 3/4 of a glass of very disgusting-tasting milk before lifting the cover and seeing that it tasted so bad because it was rotten enough to be chunky like cottage cheese. Luckily, I have an iron stomach, so that hasn't been a big problem.

Anyway, I have seen similar freshness labels for fish, although they change color rather than going bumpy -- the labels were used at Ralph's, or maybe Fresh & Easy? If it was Fresh & Easy, that store is owned by Tesco, so they probably have the same labels in England. Anyway, it was actually really convenient -- the label went from green to yellow to red as the fish spoiled. If it was green, you were good, if it was yellow you needed to eat the fish ASAP, and if it was red, it was spoiled. It was nice because the labels had gradations in color, so it was easy to see how far along the fish was. I've looked for the labels since, but the grocery stores I use here (Giant, Safeway, Shopper's, BJ's) don't use them, they just do the printed labels. I don't know how the color change system worked mechanically, either. Also, apparently everyone else thinks you have to eat fish the day you buy it anyway, so maybe those labels are pointless *shrug.*
posted by rue72 at 12:54 PM on October 28, 2014


Modern landfills are large producers of greenhouse gases, like methane and CO2, from the decomposition of organic material. That might be what they're getting at. I know that some landfills generate electricity/heat from burning the methane, but the CO2 would still be an issue.

But yeah, mostly what muddgirl said. It'd be vastly preferable to not use energy and resources producing things that we throw away.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 12:55 PM on October 28, 2014


Came for the "industrial design student" and was not disappointed! These articles are always a joyous fantasy world.
posted by rhizome at 12:56 PM on October 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think the landfill thing is a bit of a red herring

I would not eat that if I was you.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 1:04 PM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


While I'm here, I have a probably dumb question about landfills: Why is food a problem?

It isn't, really. There's the concern about methane as mentioned above, but giant herds of cows farting their way to our dinner table is far more of a problem there; food rotting in a landfill is a drop in the bucket.

Honestly this really ends up being more of a solution in search of a problem. Industrial design student so not surprising.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:24 PM on October 28, 2014


There's the concern about methane as mentioned above, but giant herds of cows farting their way to our dinner table is far more of a problem there; food rotting in a landfill is a drop in the bucket.

Nope.

Landfills account for ~18% of annual methane emissions, enteric fermentation accounts for ~20% to 25%. Those are U.S.-only numbers, but a) the U.S. is the second-most egregious offender when it comes to this topic, so the numbers have some heft to them and b) the idea that emissions from landfills are "a drop in the bucket" compared to emissions from agricultural sources just isn't true.

Supporting data from the EPA: one [PDF], two, three, four.
posted by divined by radio at 2:50 PM on October 28, 2014


I was speaking only of emissions related to food, and worldwide, well, look at the vast herds of cows all over South America that get turned into McDonald's for one but eh.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:53 PM on October 28, 2014


Ha.. I just posted this link in another unrelated thread:

Table of Condiments that Periodically Go Bad.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:41 PM on October 28, 2014


Your bag of Snackios™ are hermetically sealed in a reasonably light proof, air tight bag that makes them immune to anything but temperature changes and time. This label is stuck on the outside of a package and needs to accurately reflect the contents of the package regardless of humidity, UV exposure, and handling. There also needs to be some way to calibrate the label to the different spoilage rates of food -- a cup of yogurt goes bad A LOT faster than a can of soup.

Contrast with a simple date code. It's either ink jetted on the package or laser etched out of a solid area of ink. It doesn't care what the temperature is or if it's been sitting in the sun or buried at the back of the shelf. It doesn't care if it's Georgia in August or Minnesota in December. It's just a time limit on the shelf life of a product, conservatively estimated to avoid having spoiled products in a consumer's basket (or getting sued).

Does this mean we throw out a lot of edible food? Yes. Is there a better way to do it? Not really.
posted by nathan_teske at 5:18 PM on October 28, 2014


This is why I make a special effort to eat every last little bit of all the food I buy, long before any of it could possibly go bad. I'm not a pig, I'm an environmentalist!
posted by mrbigmuscles at 5:33 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


When I was in junior high, I was assigned the task to invent something. I invented an automatic egg flipper, which involved turning a crank attached to a spatula which flipped the cooking egg.

I thought it was pretty cool, until everyone pointed out (in the design stage), that I could just as easily use my hand to hold the spatula and flip the egg.

So. Degrading gelatin in place of a date sounds a lot like my egg flipper to me. Overly complicated for a simple function.
posted by nasayre at 6:41 PM on October 28, 2014


Ooh, but I would love to have some sort of wrapper temperature indicator, for instance, for cold items that had been left at room temp for too long. The wrapper could change color to let one know that the food could be suspect. That would be neat.
posted by nasayre at 6:43 PM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Overly complicated for a simple function.

That's what I thought when my mom gave me a ThermoFork as a joke. It seemed like it was adding needless complexity. but it turned out to be a pretty good idea.

There is one very complex system I'd really like to see implemented. In Japan there are lots of fresh foods that are barcoded and tracked from the farm to the final sale. I'm not sure exactly what products are tracked, I think it's mostly meat and produce consumed uncooked like sprouts or lettuce. I think it was implemented in response to the BSE scare, some beef imports were banned and nobody wanted to buy unsourced meat. Now you can trace back any contaminated food to the source instantly. Of course there are a lot of farmers around Fukushima who suddenly don't like this system and would prefer their produce to get silently mixed into the food chain. And that is the problem, there are a lot of farmers here in the US that don't want anyone looking too closely at their labor practices and how the products get to market.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:02 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


nasayre: "Ooh, but I would love to have some sort of wrapper temperature indicator, for instance, for cold items that had been left at room temp for too long. The wrapper could change color to let one know that the food could be suspect. That would be neat."

That's a brilliant idea! I would love something like that too. Extra bonus points if it's on the outside of the packaging so I can avoid buying it in addition to avoid getting sick.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 9:28 PM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


nasayre: "I thought it was pretty cool, until everyone pointed out (in the design stage), that I could just as easily use my hand to hold the spatula and flip the egg."

Eggs, over complicated.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:40 PM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Misleading labels are one reason that consumers waste nearly 40 percent of the food they buy...

Yeah but is it one of the major or MINOR reasons. - I reckon there have only been 1-2 times I've thrown out food because I could not read the label. Rather than the 90% of times I throw out food because the still quite legible label says its past the use-by date.

This totally seems like someone trying to "fix" an imaginary problem. This just is NOT the reason why food is wasted. It's nonsense.
posted by mary8nne at 3:08 AM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Just because you can read the label clearly doesn't mean it isn't misleadingly suggesting the food is spoiled when it isn't.
posted by Dysk at 4:56 AM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


We're all just desperate to do everything we can to avoid having to manage the details of our own lives.

That said, being a poverty-level epicurean makes me glad everyone's such an idiot about expiration dates, because it means I can buy the "expired" stuff for half price on the last date of sale and happily eat nice things that I could never afford if I was such a whining baby about "bad" food. You know what plain whole milk yogurt becomes a month after its sell-by? Yep, still yogurt. Cheese? Slice off the mold and it's fine. Day-old bread? Cut it up, roll it in olive oil and herbs—croutons for delicious homemade soup made from stuff that's "expired."

So yeah, freak on the sell-bys all you like, and I'll continue eating like a fat, bearded, cranky Julia Child on the leavings, and I don't really need extracted pig bone goo under the label to know what ten thousand years of human evolution taught me.
posted by sonascope at 5:21 AM on October 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


Cheese? Slice off the mold and it's fine.

This is another one of those common wisdom things that isn't necessarily true. Mould grows into cheese, not just on the surface, and thus slicing off the surface doesn't actually get rid of all contamination.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:47 AM on October 29, 2014


A lot of it comes down to a basic familiarity with the varieties of mold that hit cheeses, the kind of cheese you're talking about, and your basic handling of the cheese before it's old enough to mold. My cheese is never never never ever in plastic any longer than it takes to strip that shit off, throw it away, and wrap the cheese in cheese paper when I'm rich and wax paper when I'm poor. The USDA considers it safe to cut the mold off Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, Romano, Gruyere, and similar hard cheeses, and off of semi-soft cheeses like Asiago, baby Swiss, Monterey jack, mozzarella, Muenster, Gorgonzola and the like. That's not so much common wisdom as established science, as long as you follow the guidelines for how much to cut and you don't cut through the mold itself and spread it through the rest of the cheese.
posted by sonascope at 11:50 AM on October 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


I should add, as my caveat, that no soft cheese has ever survived long enough in my home to grow mold. I can barely keep myself from eating a whole wheel of Camembert in the car on the way home from the store, for pete's sake.
posted by sonascope at 11:58 AM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


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