Magic thermal ink can tell us when food is fresh

25 Jan 2018

Image: TechWatch

TechWatch editor Emily McDaid talks to Nuprint’s Gavin Killeen about temperature-sensitive inks for food labels.

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,” said 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 (NWCAM) funded by the EU under the Interreg programme. Catalyst Inc is the lead partner in NWCAM, which links Northern Ireland, Ireland and Scotland to deliver 15 research projects that are meeting industrial need within the life and health sciences sector. The project has six industrial partners, of which Nuprint is one.

Not suitable for human consumption

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

Killeen 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.”

“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.”


Gavin Killeen, managing director, Nuprint. Image: TechWatch

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

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?

We’ll have a full-time 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.

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.

The question is how to bring the technology onto flexible labels and packaging.

nuprint labels

Image: TechWatch

The next phase for a longstanding Derry firm

Nuprint has been in business since 1984, and Killeen 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,” Killeen said.

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’re very committed to our people.

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

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.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland