Frozen and refrigerated food suppliers face an ongoing challenge of how to eliminate waste and reduce corporate carbon footprints. At the heart of this is the quest to better understand the end-to-end journey of delivered foods so they can optimize their packaging design strategies and more effectively overcome this challenge. Short for variable barcode, Chicago-based Varcode serves the food and beverage, and pharmaceutical and life sciences industries.   

The company recently introduced smart label-based technology that provides extensive end-to-end monitoring and reporting of food temperatures and more, meaning companies can mine the previously unavailable data required for true packaging optimization.

1. What is smart label technology and how does it improve track and trace capabilities?

Using uniquely serialized barcodes for track and trace is in itself a very basic form of smart label technology. Enabling that barcode to also provide more advanced information is the current state of smart label technology. Following years of R&D and patent development, Varcode successfully brought to market the industry’s first comprehensive temperature tracking smart data solution that captures, tracks, analyzes and reports a food product’s cumulative temperature excursion over time, producing a cost-effective, permanent digital record without electronics and within the product’s current environment.  

The Varcode Smart Data Solution includes temperature-sensitive Smart Tags, scanning suite and a cloud-based, blockchain-enabled management system, where data is permanently stored for customization and information analysis.  The Smart Tags can be placed from pallet to unit level and scanned via any commercial scanner or any smart device with a camera to capture location and time-sensitive temperature data. The data is uploaded to Varcode’s management system, which provides alerts via SMS and email to stakeholders providing complete track trace along with critical time and temperature information to provide more comprehensive provenance.

The Smart Tag temperature indicator labels record and report if the shipment experienced temperature abuse and the cumulative time of those variances. The solution also offers options such as binary indicators for minimum and maximum temperature as well as temperature ranges, all of which are digitized with a simple scan from most available scanners as well as smartphones. The solution enables food product companies of all types – from processors and distributors to grocers, online grocers and meal kit companies – to overcome decades-old supply chain challenges with highly accurate, actionable product data from dock to doorstep.

2. How can food processors and manufacturers implement smart label technology? 

The system quickly and easily integrates into any native system, utilizing existing hardware and software platforms, and requiring no additional network or costly infrastructure. Smart Tags can be formatted as product-specific combinations of universal identifier codes, such as Code 128, UPC-a, GS1 DataBars, Code 39, UPC-E, or EAN codes to seamlessly integrate into existing tracing data. 

The implementation process typically includes the Varcode team understanding the operations of our customers and the technologies they use in order to recommend the most optimal process and implementation point. For the meal kit space, we look at if they put any marketing material in the box, if they already have an app and the current packing process. In the B2B space, our team looks at what scanners are used, the best place in the operations to apply the tags. We also assist in creating training material as well as on-site training. 

3. What are some of the ways smart label technology can benefit food processors and manufacturers?

At issue is the fact that few details are known about the complete journey of refrigerated and frozen food products from when they leave the dock to their final destination. While quite often the temperatures are monitored at the truckload and within the distribution center, it ignores gaps where problems occur such as loading docks. Companies are left in the dark, with no data or control over their own products. For example, if a fresh food product registered at 50 degrees Fahrenheit when delivered, all parties need to know how long it was above the recommended 40-degree safe zone.  Knowing whether it was for minutes or hours is important for determining food freshness and safety.

Varcode not only tracks and reports cumulative time and temperature data, but also analyzes that data and provides specific actions companies can take to improve operations and increase revenues. The data gathered can assist in analyzing and recommending how companies can tailor their use of coolants, other packaging design components and shipping methods to adjust for seasonal changes, as well as geographic variables that require adjusting operational strategies for differing climates in different area codes or around the world. These data-driven recommendations also decrease the need for re-deliveries, and cut back on product waste, all of which ultimately increase revenues.  

Improved packaging strategies based on accurate temperature monitoring also addresses another industry-wide business challenge – customer retention – particularly in the direct-to-consumer food segment, which faces troubling customer churn. Multiple studies report that consumers cite food safety as a primary reason for choosing or changing vendors.  Direct-to-consumer food companies can utilize digitized monitoring data to make operational changes that build customer confidence and loyalty.  Varcode can further reduce customer churn by enabling direct engagement with customers who, for example, can use their mobile phones to confirm product freshness without the customer knowing the results as well as allow instant access to customer satisfaction surveys or other dynamic content.

4. It took over five years of development and patent work to bring Varcode to market; what was the motivation behind Varcode and what were some of the challenges in launching the company? 

We brought Varcode to market based on need. Food companies have been completely in the dark about what happens to their products throughout the cold chain. Less advanced technologies only provided basic temperature information and gave users nothing but raw data that was unwieldly to analyze and apply to a company’s practical advantage. We knew if we could provide accurate tracking, monitoring and reporting, and if we could filter out informational “noise” and deliver actionable data and strategic operational recommendations in real time, we could bring meaningful change to the industry. 

A primary challenge we had initially was re-educating an already well-informed industry to get past previous technology limitations. Legacy technology has left many companies doubting the use of chemical indicators as they have experienced less than optimal results. To combat this, we explain our technology and how we have not only improved on those legacy products in the manufacturing and performance of the product, but how digitizing the data brings the solution to a whole new level. We have also realized our customer have to see it to believe it. The key was to make it easy to use across existing platforms, easily customizable and affordable. Our customers tell us we hit that mark.

5. What else should R&FF readers know about smart label technology for the food industry? 

Varcode is working to not only revolutionize the temperature monitoring space, but we are actively working with our customers to assist them in meeting with quality and freshness goals. With the supply chain shortages and delays, ensuring food is on the shelves is a top priority. We are working with a customer that is experiencing temperature abuse along their supply chain, affecting the amount of produce available for customers, rejection numbers, cost and reputation to streamline quality checks while ensuring a higher level of control. Varcode is not just temperature monitoring – it’s about the ability to confidently know you are providing the very best product you can. Data also empowers suppliers, distributors and retailers to help identify process gaps and streamline their individual supply chain issues, which ultimately helps keep store inventories full and adds valuable shelf time to expiration dates.