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QR codes on milk cartons may lead to less food waste, study finds

Researchers say consumers would be less likely to throw away milk if a date isn't printed on the product

Woman scanning milk with phone
Photo (c) PonyWang - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Cornell University explored how technology can help reduce consumers’ food waste. Their work tested a milk carton QR code that, when scanned, gave consumers a more accurate best-by date for their milk (as opposed to traditional cartons that have the dates printed on the product.) 

They learned that not only were the study participants eager to adopt this technology, but they were less likely to waste fresh milk when using it. 

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

Improving food waste

The purpose of the study was to gauge consumers’ interest in milk carton QR codes and then see how successful the codes were at reducing food waste. The researchers noted that milk accounts for 65% of dairy product food waste in the U.S., which translates to over $6 billion in costs. 

Lau explained that much of this stems from confusion related to best-by and sell-by dates on cartons. She said shoppers tend to naturally gravitate towards milk that’s dated the farthest out; however, this means a lot of milk sits on shelves and ultimately goes unused. 

This experiment revealed some promising trends. When given the choice between purchasing milk with a printed best-by date or one with a QR code that would display the more accurate best-by date when scanned, the majority of participants opted for the QR code. 

Another component of the study was offering the participants a discount for buying milk that was closer to its best-by date. This helped the participants save money on milk and was also an effective way to reduce waste by getting more drinkable milk off store shelves. 

While the researchers want to see more of this technology integrated throughout the food industry, these findings highlight a valuable way to help reduce a significant portion of dairy waste in the U.S. 

“This makes digital trends really valuable, particularly if they’re combined to really allow us to collect data along the food chain,” said researcher Martin Wiedmann.

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