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The Rise of the Unassuming QR Code and How it Could Change the Food Industry: OP-ED

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“QR codes are everywhere now. Even though they have been around for almost three decades, the pandemic has allowed this technology to become a mainstream data sharing solution. For the food industry, the QR code’s resurgence could become a game-changer.”

QR codes have been in our lives for a very long time. Before the pandemic, we used them a few times a year on average, tops. Now, most Canadians will use a QR code almost every week, and in some cases, daily. Implications for the food industry can 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, but it could also change our own expectations of how transparent our food supply chain can really become. 

QR codes, also known as Quick Response system, were invented in 1994 in Japan. This was for the automotive sector, since it needed a larger data storage capacity than the standard UPC code we see 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 a way to make the entire food chain more transparent, more open, 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. Well, the pandemic reminded us that we’d had the solution all along.

The pandemic has literally given QR Codes a second wind. A recent survey by Dalhousie University estimates that about three in five Canadians have used QR Codes at a restaurant or in a grocery store in the last month, for payment services, marketing purposes and other industry aspects. Almost 39% don’t use QR codes at all. That percentage is much lower among Millennials and Gen Z. The rate of usage in Canada is arguably much higher than before the pandemic.

To eliminate any human contact, the QR code became a household application for most in the food industry during the pandemic. Since most of us have smart phones now, 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 us to eliminate any paper-based documents we use. But QR codes can also do much more. The possibilities are virtually endless.

For years now, we have 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. Carrefour in Europe and Germany’s Metro are already using them for more supply chain transparency. In North America, it was more seen as a novelty and fun feature for tech-savvy consumers to use. This may very well change after the pandemic.

COVID-19 has made the use of QR codes more of a mainstream application, which can now 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 farming processing. To make better food choices, they also want to know more about ingredients and how they can increase some of their local purchases. In turn, the industry can learn more from consumers with more data trading between us and the industry. This could lead to a more market-based innovation which is always beneficial. 

Better traceability can also eliminate food fraud and make our entire food supply chain more transparent, but the QR code won’t offer a guarantee that this can happen. QR-based solutions, due to the inherent ease of imitation, might even incentivize counterfeiting, turning out to be more hazardous than adopting no solution at all. QR codes are cheap and incredibly easy to make, but they can also allow for data to be shared more 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 for this. Because of the place we gave to QR codes during the pandemic, QR codes could become the consumer’s portal to the obscure part of the food industry.

Regardless of whether QR codes become the preferred solution, what has changed is that consumers now know the food industry can provide more transparency by empowering them via their smart phones, so they will likely expect it now.  

Article Author

Sylvain Charlebois
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star.

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