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How the unassuming QR code is changing the food industry

It's not just vaccine passports. Before long consumers will expect the entire food supply chain to be fully transparent in real time.

QR codes have been in our lives for a long time. Before the pandemic, we used them a few times a year on average. Now, most Canadians will use a QR code almost every week and, in some cases, daily. Implications for the food industry could be significant.

Once deemed a clever tool used occasionally, mostly for marketing, the QR code can not only change how the food industry exchanges data with consumers, it could also change our expectations of how transparent our food supply chain can really become.

QR (quick response) codes were developed in 1994 in Japan for the automotive sector, which needed a larger data storage capacity than offered by the standard UPC code found on most products we buy. Other sectors quickly took note of the QR code’s advantages, including the food industry.

For years, the food industry has tried to figure out how to make the entire food chain more transparent, so consumers can understand what’s in the food they purchase at stores and in restaurants. How to convey the origin of all ingredients embedded in food products is no easy task unless consumers can intuitively use a piece of technology.

The pandemic reminded us that we had the solution all along.

A recent survey by Dalhousie University estimates that three in five Canadians have used QR codes at a restaurant or a grocery store in the last month. They’ve used them for payment services, marketing and other functions. That means almost 39 per cent don’t use QR codes, although that percentage is much lower among millennials and members of Generation Z.

The overall rate of usage in Canada is arguably much higher than before the pandemic.

To eliminate human contact, the QR code became a household application for much of the food industry during the pandemic.

Since most of us have smartphones, access to data like menus, prices, instructions or schedules via QR codes gave everyone a chance to live in a touchless world.

The technology was always available to eliminate paper-based documents. But QR codes can do much more. In fact, the possibilities are virtually endless.

For years, we’ve seen companies use blockchain technologies and QR codes as part of their food traceability strategy. With the hyper-digitization of the food industry, some retailers have used these codes, with mixed results.

In Europe and Asia, the use of QR codes is quite common. Retailers Carrefour in Europe and Germany’s Metro are already using them for more supply chain transparency. In North America, it was seen more as a novelty and fun feature for tech-savvy consumers to use. This may well change after the pandemic.

COVID-19 has made the use of QR codes more of a mainstream application that can open doors to a variety of new possibilities.

The pandemic has made consumers more conscious of what goes on within the supply chain before food gets to store shelves or restaurants. People are concerned about workers’ wages and welfare in farm processing. To make better food choices, they also want to know more about ingredients and how they can increase their local purchases.

In turn, the industry can learn more from consumers through more data trading between us and industry. This could lead to more market-based innovation, which is always beneficial.

Better traceability can also eliminate food fraud and make the entire food supply chain more transparent. But the QR code can’t guarantee this happens.

QR-based solutions, due to the inherent ease of imitation, might even encourage counterfeiting and turn out to be more hazardous than adopting no solution at all. QR codes are cheap and incredibly easy to make and allow for data to be shared easily.

Within a few years, consumers will expect the entire food supply chain to be fully transparent in real-time, and the industry will need to be ready. Because of the relevance we gave to the codes during the pandemic, QR could become the consumer’s portal to the obscure part of the food industry.

Regardless of whether QR codes become the preferred solution, consumers now know the food industry can provide more transparency by empowering them via their smartphones. And that will raise consumer expectations.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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