Half a croissant, on a plate, with a sign in front of it saying '50c'
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Ingredients Barcoding

The end of slow shopping trips for allergy sufferers.
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I really hope this one's baked because it's so incredibly obvious - I've been explaining it to friends, family etc since I was about 10, so it must be obvious...

Basically, you pick up that packet of tasty looking biscuits and search the back - does it contain nuts? Does it contain animal products? Does it contain wheat? You have to run through all these things for every item if you have an allergy, and I can see how it would drive me up the wall and leave me eating the same things week in, week out, simply because they are 'safe'.

So the barcode scanner would allow you to simply scan the barcode in as you wander around the supermarket. It would read the barcode, then ask some wirelessly accessed database whether this was a good product or a bad product. The processing could all be done by some web service, so all the device needs is a mobile phone connection or wifi or whatever. It could even be supplied by the supermarket themselves.

Since it would be a system created with allergy sufferers and vegetarian/vegan types in mind, you would only get a 'yes' if the product was definitely XX-free.

The immediate problem is simply the sheer number of products that would need to be put into the database, but failing some manufacturer input, it wouldn't take long for the millions of allergy sufferers to put the items they buy into the database, and with more people putting a 'yes' rating in, you could be more sure. You could even do it as you wander around with your barcode, by just saying 'yes' or 'no' to whether a particular product was ok for you. The software would be capable of working out that if this vegan and nut allergy sufferer was ok with it, but this vegan and wheat allergy sufferer was not ok with it, then there must be wheat in it, but nothing non-vegan or nut.

It's a simple concept, which is presumably why I've been thinking of it for years. I personally have no allergies to foods, but I think the sheer gratitude from users of the system - overworked mothers, schoolkids, etc - would be overwhelming. So please tell me it's already baked.

imagin8or, Jul 02 2003

redlaser.com uses handyphone images of barcodes to do comparisons ngedients are a super application http://redlaser.com/
[beanangel, Apr 28 2010]

[link]






       + It would also be useful for people who want to know if food is genetically modified, irradiated, locally grown, or certified organic. A lot of disputes about required labeling of foods would become moot.
AO, Jul 02 2003
  

       Or for a fee, get information like 'priced above average per unit,' 'cheaper at Safeway,' etc. Of course that opens up a whole new can of advertising worms, (which are always cheapest at Ray's Bait and Tackle, BTW).
RayfordSteele, Jul 02 2003
  

       Somebody posted this same idea quite recently; it seems to have vanished in the haze, however.
DrCurry, Jul 02 2003
  

       (+) I think men should have barcodes for the same reason. Scan him in (from a sufficient distance), and then the service tells you whether he is a murderer. More than one murder and they’re just not dateable, in my opinion.
pluterday, Jul 02 2003
  

       How about new icons for packaging like those that indicate an item is kosher?
phoenix, Jul 02 2003
  

       They've tried that, and it works to an extent, but you could pick any item in the ingredients and probably find someone out there with an allergy to it. The interface wouldn't be complicated; if it was hooked up to some sort of network then that can do all the hard work. Maybe you just walk into the store, and go to the barcode desk. Swipe your store card and the barcode reader is given some id. Then just wander around the store and scan an item. It just lights up a little green tick if it qualifies or a red cross if it doesn't. No more complicated than that. It could be more sophisticated, telling you what's wrong with that product, or you could have several settings for the different allergies the kids have.   

       Much of the system's ability depends on whether it's a store thing or a personal device. I'd expect it to be a personal device before it's a store thing, because of the sheer infrastructure costs of it.   

       *penny drops*   

       Make it into an addon for your pda! Then you just shove the whole database in your pda (update it now and then) and you just wander around the store with the barcode addon on it. The software on the pda could easily check with the database and give you yes or no for each of various profiles you put in - little Jimmy can't eat anything with oranges in, little Jane is allergic to nuts and the missus is dieting.   

       DIETING! HOW DID I MISS THAT?   

       (sorry, this is something of a thoughtstream, but these are as I think of them)   

       You shove your diet profile on the pda! Then just tell it who the item is for, and it'll work out your weekly calorie intake, saturated fat, wheat, starch etc etc, all those annoying calorie calculations etc.   

       Man, this is getting better. So now you get your plugin, sync the database with the pda from the net, and go shopping. {*presses Me button*, *scans barcode*, Oh, I can only have two of those this week. What about that lo-fat one over there... higher? How can it be higher?} You get the idea. So now, it's a personal diet assistant. Or a family diet assistant, etc. Want to make that special someone you only met last week a lovely meal? Download their profile, and go shopping! And no more 'honey, you got the one with nuts in. You know I can't eat nuts'. Unless you mean to, of course.
imagin8or, Jul 03 2003
  

       One step further. Use it to hold your shopping list, and check off the items as you buy them. Add images, and it will be easier to find them. Include a store layout, and order your shopping isle-by-isle.   

       Now - query - do the stores and the food companies really want you to have this much easy information? This could be death to impulse purchases, which are the only high margin items left.   

       Maybe if they can beam supermarket cupons into your palm . . .
EvilHomer, Jul 03 2003
  

       imagni8or - believe me, you wouldn't get the database on your Palm. I work for Sainsburys here in the UK and we've just replatformed our product database. It sits on clustered top of the range Sun's (the one's that used to be rebadged Crays, and are effectively mainframes with a SUN badge) and takes up a several terabytes of space.
The thing to do would be to get the supermarkets to do this as a customer service benefit, as all the data is sitting htere in the stores systems. Unfortunatley, I don't think the cost of doing it will be refelcted in enough sales uplift for the project to get the go ahead. It would make great PR though. May be I'll go and do a bit of work on it now...
goff, Jul 03 2003
  

       Sometime in the dotcom past a company I was working for was pitching a website upgrade for Whole Foods and one of the ideas we came up w/ was a user-searchable database on the site where you could enter a dietary restriction (vegan, kosher, macrobiotic, allergens) and it would show which products fit which descriptions. With an option where you could define a general shopping list ("canned beans" or "cereal") and it would tell you exactly which products fit those categories for that dierary restriction. It never went anywhere because the company went bust before we could make a formal proposal to our client.
feedmewithyourkids, Jul 03 2003
  

       Well you see that's why I suggested via mobile phone - not normal mobiles, obviously, but those pda phones (O2's XDA, etc) are just getting big here in the UK, so just shoving a barcode reader on one of those would work perfectly. Via 3G it would be a fantastic thing.   

       Obviously the store implementing it would be great, and the first store to do it would immediately grab headlines and pull all the allergy sufferers and dieters in, but the infrastructure cost is not small, so they'd need a bit of handholding and proof that people go for this kind of thing.   

       I think if it was created as a web service, a queryable database contributed to by manufacturers, customers, stores etc, then the software on the pda could do all manner of organisation for you, including shopping lists and diet profiling, interfacing with your fridge...   

       And it would be just as easy to implement it for rfid. In fact it would be better with RFID! Whoa! With Rfid you can read the numbers from a distance, yes? So you stand in front of the biscuits shelf, and the pda shows you a list of the different packets that will be ok for each of the people; Suitable products here: Mr B's wheat-free chocos, Marmite flavour Doodads. You get the idea. Mmmm, integrated technology, delicious.
imagin8or, Jul 07 2003
  

       imagin8or, I love your naiive approach to how technology can better our lives. That is not meant as a dig, but a complement. Unfortunately, having spent 15 years in the IT side of industry, I'm afraid it is never quite as simple as that when it meets the business case.
In this instance, I'm afraid that allergy sufferers actually don't represent as big a portion of the population as you'd think (although they are significant enough for us to offer our "Free From " range of goods here at Sainsburys - but we don't sell as many of them as we thought we would). Multiply that by the numbers in the population who actually have a connected pDA, and you end up with a very small number. Development of the interfaces and everything to provide this service would cost millions of pounds. Unfortunately, the numbers just won't add up. As I said before though, it may be good as a PR exercise, but it would be a pretty expensive PR exercise.
goff, Jul 07 2003
  

       Not all that naïve, I hope. I only really threw in the 'store provides' option in case anyone thought it would be all that popular, but I think if I'm realistic, this would be something of a community project if anything. There aren't enough people, as you say, for it to be a worthwhile PR excercise, as the infrastructure would be needed in each store. But the number of people in the UK and US combined that have access to allergies and computers would probably yield enough people to get the project going.   

       The technology that would probably work best immediately would be mobile pdas, since they're fairly cheap (on the scale of things) and widely available. The barcode reader bit would probably be a bit more complicated, however, and might provide the biggest stumbling block, so may suggest a commercial venture would be a good thing.   

       Initially, of course, the database would be only small - as the users add products they already know and trust. So at first it would only need a normal pda, or perhaps a barcode scanning pda like those available from ptshome.com. Presumably by the time the database it bigger than about 5MB, I would have thought the project would have reached critical mass and be a viable commercial concern for a company to invest in. Since the database is built up by the users, the key investment would be developing hardware, which is a fairly tangible process.   

       ptshome.com seems to sell the ideal module for the beginnings of the project, a handspring barcode reader module. Obviously ergonomically a one-handed operation is the aim, so you can pick things up with one hand and scan them with the other. There seem to be various add-on modules already available, presumably for stock taking and warehouse use, including iPaq jackets, etc. An interesting twist would be the new Handspring Treo 600 will have a camera integrated into it, so presumably that could be used as the barcode scanner?   

       To get an idea of the amount of available storage; suppose there are 100 1 bit flags for each entry in the database - nuts, yes or no; wheat, yes or no; etc - and 50 characters of text. If the characters are 7-bit, that gives 450 bits per entry, or 57 bytes of data. Round up to 64 bytes and 5MB will give you some 80,000 entries. Whilst that won't cover all the ranges of all the stores, it'll do a single store at first. So once more than 80k products are entered, perhaps it can be filtered into a database for Sainsburys, one for Tesco, one for Asda etc. At this point some help from the stores could be relatively simple, moderately cheap and good PR; 'we keep the FreeFrom ingredients database fully up to date'...   

       If we ignore palm users with small memory sizes, PocketPC devices and upgradeable palms could probably afford more like 32 or 64MB, which ups the number to half a million or a million entries. And if you can't find some wheat free biscuits in that lot, you've more problems than software can cure.   

       Perhaps, in all honestly, this just needs a little baking. A community website, etc. It's clearly generated some positive discussion here at +17 and -0 and I think if it's done in stages it may well be able to avoid the problems of needing external support at all for PocketPCs or being an entirely online system for smartphones with cameras.
imagin8or, Jul 08 2003
  

       I guess you might say that the effort needed to create such a system is nothing to sneeze at.
dweeb, Jul 08 2003
  

       I see what you did there, I do.
imagin8or, Jul 10 2003
  

       Great idea. (WTAGIPBAN)
krelnik, Jul 10 2003
  

       Hmm, more thoughts.   

       Other things people consider when buying:   

       Organic? GM? Fairtrade? British? Free range? Microwaveable?   

       It would make life easier to have all these things in the db as well. So now the target audience includes anyone with an allergy or people with allergies in their family, people on medical or health diets, people who want to buy organic or gm-free, people who want to buy ethical or fairly traded goods. That's a fair audience...
imagin8or, Jul 14 2003
  

       goff - could you kindly send me your mailing address so that i can make contact with you directly? if you care to do so, my email address is excerno@hotmail.com
BakerStreet, Apr 28 2004
  

       imagin8or, i am currenlty working on a project that relates to the idea discussed here and would like to share it with you in private. could you kindly contact me directly at excerno@hotmail.com ?
BakerStreet, Apr 29 2004
  

       Baked, [phoenix]. There are already packaging icons which tell you whether or not something is kosher, like the "U" and the "K".
disbomber, Apr 05 2005
  

       err, why are we asking for this information from the supermarket, rather than the manafacturer? presumably it's because we'd end up with conflicting formats. I've alsways thought a service which gives more information on products (at an EAN/UPC level) could be hosted by the organisation that hands out the numbers.

With a different hat on, I did some work for a multinational retailer a few years back, and we had a hell of a lot of the information you're asking for already stored, the interface for consumers to pull the stuff out would be fairly trivial.
neilp, Apr 05 2005
  

       Well spotted [beanangel]. When this idea popped back up to the Recent list I read it and thought of the Amazon.com app on the iPhone... then saw your link and thought: "even better". *Then* I see that Redlaser has functions for allergen crossreference as well.   

       Superb. Ahead of your time. [imagin8or].
Jinbish, Apr 28 2010
  
      
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