Consumers embrace milk carton QR codes, may cut food waste

The “use-by” and “best-by” dates printed on milk cartons and gallon jugs may soon become a thing of the past, giving way to more accurate and informative QR codes. A new Cornell University study finds that consumers will use the QR codes — to better depict how long the milk is drinkable and create substantially less agricultural and food waste.

In the U.S., dairy products are among the top three food groups with the largest share of wasted food, said Samantha Lau, a doctoral student in food science who works in the lab of Martin Wiedmann, the professor of food safety in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

In the early spring semester, Lau, also working with Cornell’s Milk Quality Improvement Program, connected with the Cornell Dairy Bar — which sells fluid milk in addition to ice cream on campus. She wanted to assess consumer acceptance for QR code technology that may one day replace the static best-by or sell-by dates commonly found on food products.

Customers had a choice: purchasing milk with printed best-by dates or buying containers with QR codes, which, when scanned by a smart phone, would display the best-by date.

In the same Cornell Dairy Bar study, Lau placed a dynamic pricing element where consumers were encouraged to purchase milk with a shorter remaining shelf life — by offering a price discount as the best-by date approached.

“During two-month study, over 60% of customers purchased the milk with the QR code, showing a considerable interest in using this new technology,” Lau said. “This revealed that the use of QR codes on food products can be an innovative way to address the larger issue of food waste.”

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

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