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Research reduces supermarket label errors

A supermarket aisle

LSBU researcher Jamie Smith-Spark has been helping supermarkets reduce food waste by improving the process of quality control checking labels

The cost of mis-labelling food

The mis-labelling of food in the UK costs around £8 million to £10 million each year, with tonnes of food wasted and the accompanying impact on the environment that brings.

To combat this, LSBU received funding from Innovate UK to undertake research into the causes of mis-labelling and develop a solution to this challenging issue.

Whilst these mistakes are infrequent, their impact on business reputation is great, to say nothing of the fines and costs associated with repackaging or replacing the produce involved.

Jamie Smith-Spark

Quality control checks – the risk of human error

“Quality control checks on supermarket packaging are conducted to ensure that food is correctly labelled. However, despite these multiple checks and various levels of quality control in the labelling of fresh food and vegetables at packing and distribution centres, mistakes do occur,” says Senior Lecturer Jamie Smith-Spark.

“Whilst these mistakes are infrequent, their impact on business reputation is great, to say nothing of the fines and costs associated with repackaging or replacing the produce involved. Setting up labels for printing is typically a manual task, but the reasons for the failures that arise were still not understood prior to the development of our research.”

Gathering data on the process of label checking

Working with Sainsbury’s, software developer Muddy Boots and food packaging company MACK, a Research team led by Jamie and Dr Hillary Katz (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology) conducted a two-year laboratory-condition study of label checking in packaging sites. The resulting data was analysed to determine the principal causes for mis-labelling.

“We used an eye-tracker to record eye movements during label checking. We found that the best checkers were those that checked one field of information at a time when moving between a specification sheet and the printed label. Other checkers tried to remember several fields of information at a time and check these on one visual pass of the label. Others had no discernible strategy. The most accurate performers were those that used a serial, one piece-of-information-at-a-time approach,” reveals Jamie.

The problem of perceptual blindness

“We are hoping that lessons learned can now inform research in other areas, as this form of perceptual blindness is not unique to mistakes in labelling. As an example, medical staff can possibly miss the patently obvious when looking at x-rays."

Finding solutions

"As a result, another grant application to apply this technique to other domains is in development, while a separate study will look at the development of professional label checkers. There is also particular interest in working with people with an Autism spectrum disorder, which Dr Katz has begun to lead work on.”

Research impacts:

  • A label-checking app created by project partner Muddy Boots has been commercially released as part of the Greenlight software package series.
  • The app was tested by the packaging company MACK: in a three-month, on-site trial it reduced errors to zero.
 
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