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Cornell food scientists are designing the milk carton of the future that will give consumers precise “best by” dates and improve sustainability by reducing food waste.

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), the New York State Dairy Promotion Order and Chobani have given $1.56 million to Cornell’s Milk Quality Improvement Program to develop milk carton technology that gives wholesalers, retailers and consumers accurate shelf life information.

“We can apply digital agriculture tools directly onto the milk cartons to decrease food waste, since consumers get rid of milk too fast,” said Martin Wiedmann, the Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety and the project’s principal investigator. “We can accomplish this while improving the sustainability of our food supply.”

The best by date imprinted on milk cartons and other foods indicates when a product is likely at peak quality, but consumers often interpret the dates as an expiration and discard the milk without realizing it’s still safe to drink, according to FFAR.

FFAR was established by the Agricultural Act of 2014 – better known as the Farm Bill – to support agricultural research, foster collaboration and complement the mission of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wiedmann said milk cartons of the future will likely have a QR code that would offer specific information about that milk, such as the originating farm, the fluid milk processing plant and possible microbial influences, as well as a separate indicator that records carton temperature and time. Retailers and consumers could scan both the QR code and the indicator; an app would then quickly calculate how much longer the milk will last.

Renata Ivanek, associate professor of epidemiology in Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, will collaborate with Wiedmann on creating the models that synthesize scientific literature. “It’s predictive modeling to show how much shelf life is left and which interventions could extend it,” said Ivanek. “The model will account for conditions and processes, from the farm to the processing plant to retail handling and to homes.”

Aaron Adalja, assistant professor of food and beverage management at the School of Hotel Administration, focuses on applied economics and policy. For this grant, Adalja will examine the retailer and consumer sides of improved shelf life dates.

“If a retailer can accurately predict when food is going to spoil, for example,” he said, “this may be an opportunity to use dynamic pricing to incentivize consumption before the milk spoils.”

Said Adalja: “At the same time, we don’t want to create a price incentive for consumers to waste milk, so we need to study economic interests to understand how precise shelf life dates can affect consumer behavior and waste.”

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