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Magic thermal ink tells us when food is fresh

Every time we buy food, we’re given an indication of its freshness through a measure of time – a best-before date. “Temperature […]

January 16, 2018

Every time we buy food, we’re given an indication of its freshness through a measure of time – a best-before date.

“Temperature is a more important indicator than time – whether that food has been transported and stored at the required freezing, or chilled, temperatures,” says the man who has led Nuprint for more than 20 years, Gavin Killeen. Nuprint, a labelling producer, has a new R&D project to create temperature-sensitive inks for food labels. The project is part of the ‘North West Centre for Advanced Manufacturing,’ EU funded under the INTERREG programme.*

Owing to food warming up to ambient temperatures when it shouldn’t, the World Health Organisation found that 25% of food products in the US are beyond their best – before they hit the supermarket.

Gavin said, “Temperate-sensitive labels have been possible for some time, but it’s been cost-prohibitive. Food products are fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). We could use copper-etched circuit boards and RFID tags, but the cost is too high for FMCG. We need an inexpensive ink capable of carrying a charge or a circuit.”

He explained, “In the case of a frozen chicken, its label would be stamped with a thermochromic ink stating ‘Not Suitable for Human Consumption.’ That warning would only become visible if the chicken is exposed to ambient temperature for long enough, say it was left out of the freezer, or the refrigerator was shut off during transit.”

Presumably it isn’t good enough to have this label on bulk packaging, with several chickens inside, because a consumer won’t see that?

Gavin said, “It needs to be on individual food items. Therefore it may only be for expensive cuts of meat, maybe not a container of coleslaw. The question is, what are consumers prepared to pay for?”

Nuprint’s academic partner is the University of Glasgow. What is the scope of the research?

Gavin said, “We’ll have a fulltime PhD student researcher, with a few senior academics involved.

What’s your proposed timeline for a commercial outcome?

“I’m hopeful that in two or three years we’ll have something that can be marketed,” said Gavin.

He described some of the challenges they face. “It’s a classic chicken-and-egg; how do we get the price low if we don’t have high volume, but we can’t achieve the volume until we get the price down.”

Gavin continued, “The question is how to bring the technology onto flexible labels and packaging.”

The next phase for a longstanding Derry~Londonderry firm

Nuprint has been in business since 1984, and Gavin has led it into the future. “We’ve invested £2.5m over the past 18 months, bringing in new digital printing technology with variable data, new sleeve labelling technology, and other technology. We’ve also invested heavily in our staff. We work with global brands like Coca-Cola and local brands such as Linden, Willowbrook and Dunbia.”

I read Nuprint has a goal to expand to 50 staff this year; how are you doing against that target?

“We’re currently at 43 staff members and we’ve very committed to our people,” he said.

How does Northern Ireland rank when it comes to food, and food safety?

Gavin said, “Northern Ireland is second-to-none when it comes to food. Maybe we don’t sell ourselves as well as we could, when it comes to premium Northern Irish beef for instance. Other regions have perhaps sold themselves better, without having our high standard of quality. This means there’s a global opportunity for Northern Ireland’s food producers.”

*More about Interreg EU

Catalyst is the lead partner in an €8.5m INTERREG EU funded project ‘North West Centre for Advanced Manufacturing’ (NW CAM) that links Northern Ireland, Ireland and Scotland to deliver 15 research projects that are meeting industrial need within the Life and Health Science sector. The project has six industrial partners of which Nuprint is one.

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