Informative Labeling Differentiates Dairy Products

Smart packaging and labeling can address consumer preferences and lifestyles, introduce products to first-time buyers, extend shelf life, protect product quality, and reduce waste.

Smart Features Offer Potential to Reduce Waste

By Rebecca Marquez, Manager of Business Intelligence at PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies

The dairy industry is increasingly fragmented as it attempts to address demands for health and wellness, quality, sustainability, plant-based products, organic products, indulgent treats and niche markets like lactose-intolerant consumers.

With all these variations to meet growing consumer demands, the dairy case is crowded. Thus, connecting with consumers is essential so the desired product can be quickly identified. Clean packaging designs, which highlight natural ingredients and key health benefits, will differentiate a product from competitor options and stand out to shoppers who are overwhelmed by too much information according to a recent Mintel1 report.

As a result, dairy packaging features many descriptors to identify health and wellness attributes such as “produced without rBST” (a growth hormone), “grass-fed” (contains higher percentages of healthy fatty acids), “ultra-filtered” (lactose-free with more protein and calcium and less sugar), “vitamins A & D added” and “ultra-pasteurized” (for longer shelf life).

Smart packaging and labeling also can help connect with consumers, address consumer preferences and lifestyles, introduce products to first-time buyers, extend shelf life, protect product quality, and reduce waste.

Labeling technology

One smart labeling option, the quick-response (QR) code, is increasingly used to connect consumer and product. The two-dimensional barcode can be read by a smartphone and provide an instant link to information about the product, other consumers of the product, a fun activity or package recycling information. Research by Cornell University2 indicates consumers will use a QR code that tells them how long milk will be drinkable, thereby eliminating premature disposal and reducing the expense of restocking the refrigerator as well as agricultural and food waste.

A study by Samantha Lau, a doctoral student in food science, assessed consumer acceptance of a QR code replacement for static best-by or sell-by dates. Customers at the Cornell Dairy Bar, which sells fluid milk and ice cream on campus, could purchase milk with printed best-by dates, or QR codes displaying the best-by date when scanned by a smartphone. The study also included a dynamic pricing element where consumers were offered a discount if they purchased milk closer to its best-by date.

“During the two-month study, over 60% of customers purchased the milk with the QR code,” Lau said. “This revealed that the use of QR codes on food products can be an innovative way to address the larger issue of food waste.”

With printed dates on cartons, consumers typically buy milk with the most distant date, leaving stores with drinkable milk, which must be thrown out when it expires.

“This makes digital trends valuable, particularly if they’re combined to really allow us to collect data along the food chain,” says Martin Wiedmann, the Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell.

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Smart technology

Not only could the QR codes accurately inform consumers on drinkability and dynamic pricing, but the technology exists where smart milk cartons could communicate with smart refrigerators to inform a household of the need for fresh milk according to Wiedmann. Smart refrigerators ultimately could tell consumers about a suggested recipe that uses the products in the refrigerator that are close to the end of shelf life.

“This type of new digital food system infrastructure can reduce food waste,” Wiedmann noted.

Reducing food waste also scores points for sustainability. Because of consumer confusion about when to toss it from the fridge and retailers left with unsold products, fluid milk is responsible for about 65% of dairy product food waste – a loss that costs the U.S. nearly $6.4 billion annually according to the Cornell study.

Reducing dairy product waste also can reduce greenhouse gas emissions because global fluid milk production, processing, and transportation are responsible for 5.3 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents per pound of milk, according to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

Another smart labeling option, color-changing labels, track product quality. Used for higher-value perishables, the labels change color with age and/or temperature abuse.

About the Author

Rebecca Marquez is the manager of business intelligence at PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. Rebecca is responsible for the execution and analysis of PMMI’s internal and proprietary client market research projects, specializing in quantitative and qualitative research design, execution and analysis; project management and business development. Learn more at


  1. Luttenberger, David and Punchard, Benjamin. “Global Packaging Trends,” Mintel, February 2023.
  2. Friedlander, Blaine. “Consumers Embrace Milk Carton QR codes, May Cut Food Waste,” Cornell Chronicle, Cornell University, June 1, 2022.

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