Sainsbury’s and TSB sign LSBU psychologists to unravel costly fresh food mislabelling

The resulting impact on supply chain operations at Sainsbury's five processing plants in the UK and one in Spain is huge. Now the supermarket giant is trying to address the issue of repetitive flaws that affect suppliers and industries globally. LSBU's psychology department, supported by Sainsbury's and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), have taken on the challenge of finding a solution to this mammoth and costly problem.

Despite multiple checks and quality control in the labelling of fresh food and vegetables delivered at Sainsbury's packing and distribution centres repeated mistakes occur. Labelling is typically a manual task and the reason for the failure remains a mystery in what is ultimately an easy and repetitive process. The problem appears to result from a loss of vigilance or perceptual blindness causing foodstuffs to be recalled with staggering financial costs and carbon footprint liabilities. There is a real incentive to find a solution.

Two-year observation study and experimental lab work

LSBU's psychologists have been given the task of identifying why and where labelling errors occur and to find ways to minimise their costly effect. Leading the project are Dr Hillary Katz and Dr Jamie Smith-Spark, Senior Lecturers with the Department of Psychology, in LSBU's Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences. Their research is supported by a £410,000 grant with £133,000 of this earmarked for the LSBU team, and the balance for Fresca, the fresh produce supplier, and Muddy Boots a software developer.

The project will involve a two-year observation study at Sainsbury's six sites and the resulting data laboratory work will be processed at the University. Findings will be used to develop software or a device to ease the mislabelling problem.

This presents a really exciting intellectual challenge for academic psychologists and also meets the criteria of the department towards applying psychology in real world settings.

Dr Jamie Smith-Spark, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology

Katz and Smith will examine the relationship between the technology, people doing the checks and initial packaging. Smith believes the problem could be about distributed cognition, which not only involves the action of individual minds, but different people working together. Simply put, the errors could be occurring because everyone is thinking somebody else is checking and so they don't check themselves. Having to regularly change labels for special offers to attract consumers may also be a contributing factor.

Recognised expertise

Despite all the resources in the commercial sector it is interesting how industry still needs the expertise and knowledge of academics to try and solve the problem.

Hillary Katz, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology

It is quite a good example of state funding and industry coming together to solve a problem with the university.

Dr Jamie Smith-Spark, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology

It is hoped that lessons learned can also inform research in other areas. This form of perceptual blindness is not unique to mistakes in labelling. Airline pilots have been found not to see aircraft on runways and medical staff can similarly miss the patently obvious when looking at X Rays.

LSBU's psychology department has received over £1.1 million in funding over the last five years and results are fed directly into teaching. This research speaks loudly about our reputation, recognition and expertise, say Katz and Smith. The department has over 400 students including postgraduates and PhDs.


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