US demand for food safety products will increase by 6.5 per cent per year to US$3.2bn (€2bn) in 2012, according to a new study from the Freedonia Group, with the fastest growth coming from smart labels and tags that allow greater traceability of food products along the entire production chain.
The demand for products that can help processors ensure that their products are safe has grown in the wake of a number of high profile food recalls and scares in the US.
The largest meat recall in US history back in February saw the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in California voluntarily recall 143,383,823 pounds of raw and frozen beef products amid fears that it could be contaminated by E.coli.
Concerns that some of the affected products could have been consumed by school children on the National School Meal Program prompted calls for tighter controls on food production - a job that could be made easier using new technology.
Labels and tags
Although traditional food safety products such as disinfectants and chemicals will continue to be the main weapons in the battle against food-borne diseases, Freedonia's report suggests that smart labels and tags will experience double-digit annual growth "due to rising demand for the added security and efficiency they can provide".
"Labels and tags, along with providing product identification and basic nutrition information delivery, have long served as fundamental tools in food safety by affording consumers with some indication of how long food will remain unspoiled," said Freedonia spokeswoman Corinne Gangloff.
"More recently, additional information has been added to food product labels to alert consumers of the presence of potentially dangerous allergens or trace contaminants, such as mercury in fish."
But these traditional labelling measures are not considered as specifically related to food safety, she added, at least not in the same way as smart labels that can "directly interact with the food or environment to provide food safety-related information".
These smart labels include bar codes and radio frequency identification (RFID) chips that are by distributors to provide traceability information, and accounted for around seven per cent of the food safety products market in 2007.
Freedonia expects to see sales of these products rise by around 10 per cent by 2012 to more than US$260m as technology improves.
Growth in RFID tags in particular is expected to be strong, as large cattle and pig farms look to speed animal transfer and processing at feed lots and slaughterhouses, the report notes.
But bar code tag and label growth will be restrained due to a mature market, and eventual loss of market share to RFID tags in the longer term.
However, it is smart label technology that is likely to drive the market the most, according to the report.
"Smart labels that report product exposure to adversely high temperatures during transport and storage are providing information that simply was not previously available to either the retailer or consumer," said Gangloff.
"From a food safety standpoint, smart labels and tags are considered important if they provide traceability, or some indication of a condition change that would affect the safety of the food."
The Westland case - where meat from diseased animals passed into the human food chain - has highlighted the need for greater traceability, and Freedonia's report notes that better tracking of animals would allow government health inspectors to track down the source of an infectious agent far more rapidly.
But using new technology will also help companies cut the cost of complying with ever more stringent traceability requirements: new US regulations require food and beverage companies to keep records that identify both what raw materials went into a specific food product and where the raw material was from, and to whom the food product was shipped, for a period of two years.
"The food and beverage industry is looking for the most effective way of complying with these regulations, and the use of bar code and RFID tags is expected to help automate the process, reducing the overall financial impact of compliance," Gangloff said.
"To be fully effective, traceability must be implemented all the way from the farm to the store or restaurant. Already bar codes and RFID tags are used at the farm to track either individual animals, or in the case of poultry, flocks. The majority of usage, however, is in distribution and storage to track product movement and inventory levels."