Why are food labels hard to read?

During an overseas holiday, I was asked by a fellow traveller what I did for a living. Because the term “prepress operator” is esoteric, my response was to say that I make food labelling and other printing. However, I was caught quite off-guard by the traveller’s response, which was “why do you have to make labels so darn hard to read?”.

That moment has stuck with me for some time now, and in this article I’d like to answer that traveller’s question comprehensively in an Australian setting.

In short: Limited real-estate vs too much information

That’s it in a nutshell – labels tend to be small in size, usually because the product that they contain is small in volume. Despite the small size, there’s also a lot of information to include within that size.

Details that have to be displayed by law

As a disclaimer, I am not a lawyer and this is not constituting legal advice on all specifications for a label.

If retailing food, the code developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) details what should appear on food labelling. More information can be found on their site, but in short a food label should have:

  • A Nutritional Information Panel;
  • The ingredients and additives by ingoing weight, and in some circumstances the percentage of ingredients. For example, if the label is identified as strawberry jam in the branding, then the percentage of strawberries actually used in the product has to be given.
  • Allergen information
  • Directions for use or storage
  • What the food is (e.g. is it strawberry jam, cookies, kombucha, etc)
  • The contact address of the manufacturer
  • The measurement of the weight or volume of the product
  • Country of Origin label

Some information can be presented on the label but may be presented elsewhere on the container, such as:

  • Batch or run of the product being produced
  • Best before or Use-By dates

In addition, the position of where the measurement of the weight or volume of the product can appear on the label is rather rigid and structured.

Country of Origin

From 1 July 2018, food products sold in Australia must display a Country of Origin label. This label has a specific appearance that must be adhered to, along with guidelines of how the label must be phrased.

An example of the Country of Origin label

This is enforceable at law by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) – the Federal Government’s consumer watchdog which can – and does – give hefty fines to corporations and individuals for breaches of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).

There is an online generator to create such labels, so having to maintain an array of assets for this task isn’t required – simply generate a label as and when they are needed.

Details that may also be required

Barcodes

Note that in the above code, that a barcode isn’t required by law. However, if the product is to be stocked on a large scale through distributors in a logistics chain, then it will usually need a barcode. In Australia this will usually be an EAN-13 barcode but in North America a UPC barcode is more likely.

Barcodes also have limited scaling, and GS1 (a provider of barcodes and related logistic products and services) indicates that a barcode should be placed at no less than 80% of its recommended size.

Specifications from GS1 relating to EAN-13 barcodes at 100% size

In GS1’s more detailed instructions on their website, they also recommend specific locations and orientations for the barcode, so can’t just go anywhere at any size.

These recommendations sound strict, but are done with the best of intentions so that a barcode will scan first time, every time, regardless of where the product was purchased. Remember, it’s a retailer’s aim to get that product from their shelf to your pantry or refrigerator with the least amount of fuss.

The size of the barcode can also be influenced by the retail chain that is selling the product and may recommend not proportionally scaling the barcode at all but leaving it at 100% size. It is best to check with the retail chain’s specifications first.

Container Deposit Scheme

As at the time of writing, all states and territories in Australia (except for Victoria and Tasmania) have some form of container deposit scheme, usually for soft drink containers. These schemes encourage consumers to return the containers to a collection facility in exchange for a refund for each item returned.

There are no national guidelines as to how the deposit notification should appear, so check with the relevant authority in each state.

Three items commonly seen on flavoured milk cartons (from top clockwise): The Country of Origin label; The Australasian Recycling Label; and The Container Deposit Scheme.

Alcoholic drinks

While a Nutrition Information Panel is not required for alcoholic drinks, other information is required, such as:

  • Alcoholic content (ALC/VOL)
  • Standard drinks statement. This can either be a written statement i.e. CONTAINS APPROX. X.X STANDARD DRINKS or in the form of a graphic with its own requirements.
  • As of 31 July 2020 and to be phased in over three years – a pregnancy warning label.
Pregnancy warning label, phasing in began on 31 July 2020.

Additional voluntary icons or graphics for marketing purposes

Health star rating

This is a voluntary system to aid customers in making healthier choices.

Third party endorsements

Endorsements from third parties that require an audit trail to guarantee the claims made about the product or its packaging, such as:

  • Organic certification, such as NASAA or Australia Certified Organic to certify that a product is organic;
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to certify the product or its packaging is from a sustainable source;
  • Cultural preparation certifications such as Halal or Kosher.

These types of logos won’t use a generic logo, but will usually contain a unique identifier such as a number that can be tied to the particular supplier.

These logos usually have strict stylesheets that have to be adhered to such as size, color, position in relation to other elements etc, and these guidelines have to be taken into consideration when juxtaposing the artwork for the label. The third party (or its auditing agency) usually requests to see the artwork prior to approval for print to ensure that the logo is used appropriately and within its guidelines.

Australasian Recycling Label

This is a private initiative to reduce landfill by informing consumers how the packaging can be disposed of once the product is used. The logos aren’t in the public domain and permission must be sought for use of this artwork.

And of course, our own branding

With all of the other details now on the label as required, it’s time to add the branding and design to the label… if it will fit!

This is just for food!

The details listed in this article are only describing what goes on a food label in Australia and aren’t exhaustive – this article doesn’t even mention regulations that concern pharmaceuticals or industrial products that may contain harmful chemicals.

Don’t even try being creative for cigarettes

While cigarette cartons aren’t labels, it is worth mentioning this as it is currently unique to Australia. Since 1 December 2012, any tobacco product (including labels on loose tobacco such as roll your own cigarettes) in Australia must follow the plain packaging guide, which – on a regular pack of 25 cigarettes – features such marketing gems as:

  • The brand and variant must be in Lucida Sans font in PANTONE Cool Gray 2C;
  • The pack surface must be in PANTONE 448C (a greenish-brown color);
  • A warning statement and graphic that covers at least 75% of the front surface without spaces separating the statement or graphic; and 90% of the back surface.

And this is just for Australia!

This article has focused on Australian food labels as they are the ones I am most familiar with and see on a daily basis at work. However, after spending time living in Canada, I recall seeing products that were sold nationwide (with exceptions of course) having to be in both English and French – good luck with getting all that information to fit now!

Can’t the label be bigger?

That can certainly provide more real-estate for the information to be displayed, but the size is often determined by:

  • Price of label production. Larger labels usually cost more than smaller labels that have otherwise identical print specifications such as stock, inks and embellishments.
  • Size of the package itself. An A4 page simply won’t fit on a cylinder that holds 100ml of a product;
  • How the labels are applied. For example, if machine applied, there may be specifications that a larger label can’t fulfill that a smaller label can fulfill.
  • Marketing. It may be more desirable for a consumer to see more of the product in the glass jar as opposed to a label that would obscure the contents.

Your thoughts

I hope this article has explained why labels can be hard to read – put simply it is to cram all of the required information into a tiny space. I’ve tried to cover as much as I could without trying to encompass all labelling, but no doubt there are items that I’ve missed or aren’t applicable in your part of the world. Leave a comment below on anything I’ve missed or if there is anything specific to labels in your country.

Consistent spot color naming to die-forme

A pain-point I see regularly concerns inconsistencies in color names, particularly spot colors that are used for embellishments. Take for example a color that is used for representing a forme-shape. For consistency sake, the office has implemented a CC library with standard swatches for regularly used embellishments such as Dieline, Perforation and Spot UV. The concept is that anyone who requires an embellishment can simply open the CC library and choose one from the embellishment colors that have been established.

Despite creating this CC library, embellishment colors and names can still be inconsistent for reasons such as:

  • The artwork was legacy artwork prior to introducing the CC library;
  • Operator error; or
  • Art was supplied by a third party, such as a client or supplier.

Naming consistency is important with workflows that have been established with these embellishment colors. Take the color “Dieline” for example. This should be clearly visible on the native files, but not on the printed output. In this instance when printing to digital devices, the RIP will identify the color “Dieline” and assign it a white color value that will treat it as if it were transparent and not print at all, though it will appear in the PDF. This eliminates the need to toggle a dieline layer on and off in the application that made the artwork, and eliminates any errors associated with art being mapped to incorrect layers.

However, if the artwork contained a color named as “Dieforme” for example, the RIP would not identify the color as “Dieline” and the formeshape would be visible on the final print. This issue could be resolved by adding the color “Dieforme” manually to on the RIP, but the concept is to have every file the same so that operators aren’t interrupted having to make adjustments on the RIP for specific tasks.

A solution via Acrobat

My preferred solution is to use a custom fixup from Adobe Acrobat’s Preflight dialog. In this example, I’ve created a PDF that contains ten variations of Dieline spot color using different names, but the color value is identical. Here is what the separation preview looks like:

Acrobat does have pre-made fixups for similar tasks, such as Make custom spot color names consistent.

Let’s give that a go.

The fix has reduced the number of spot colors but only down to five. Names that had different casing have been merged together, and spaces or dashes have been removed and then merged together with the results.

Let’s revert that and try an alternative fixup Merge spot color name if appearance is identical.

OK, that has remapped all of these spots to one spot color.

However, this color is the wrong name. It is also unlikely that the forme-shape colors would ever be set with different names yet have the same underlying CMYK color conversion. The following would be more likely:

Let’s run the Merge spot color name if appearance is identical fixup again.

Some names have been culled but there similar names such as die and Die have not been mapped together, so this solution hasn’t worked.

Make a custom fixup in the Preflight panel

Luckily we can make our own solution from the Preflight panel by clicking on the options button at the top right of the panel and selecting Create Fixup

In the new window, the fix will be given the name Diecut Fix. Choose Color spaces, spot colors, inks from the Fixup category in the top centre dialog; and select Map spot and process colors in the Type of fixup dialog on the top right hand side.

In the options at the bottom of that dialog box, make sure the Source color name matches with RegEx and in the field to the right, type the GREP ^die.*?$ – this will look for any word that begins with die. The destination should Map or rename, and the destination color name will be Dieline, with a CMYK value of 100% magenta, overprint on, and applied to Spot color is used. The checkbox should be checked on for ignore upper/lower case. Once OK’d from the bottom right hand corner, the fixup can then be activated using the Fix button on the bottom right of the Prepress dialog.

The fixup has worked – all of the colours have been mapped to the one color with the correct name and color value. An added bonus is that the color is set to overprint so that the color beneath won’t knock out.

Other applications

In this instance, the fixup has been used to fix a one-off issue concerning an incorrectly named spot color. But this fixup can be added to a larger workflow so that artwork from external sources can be cleansed for a workflow. See this article for more information (https://colecandoo.com/2019/02/24/droplet-like-its-hot/)

This particular fixup is also used to fix artwork that – while being set in the right color and name – did not have an overprint applied to the color. This fixup will correct this issue.

Variable QR codes? Sort of possible…

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UPDATE 2014-07-22: Since the release of Adobe InDesign CC 2014, variable QR codes via Data Merge is now possible. A post will be written about this feature once it has been thoroughly tested, but in the meantime this article has been edited to reflect the update.

Since the invention of QR codes, a burning question has been “how to incorporate these barcodes into a Data Merge?” There are lots of ways to generate one-off QR codes such as:

  • QR code generating websites;
  • An InDesign Javascript written by Jongware that is suitable for CS4-6;
  • Built into InDesign CC and above; and
  • Third party plug-ins that offer one-off creation as a “taster”.

But what if there are 30, 300, 3,000 or 30,000+ codes that need to be made as a direct mail campaign? Creating 30,000 QR codes is not a task that anyone would want to do individually.

So can Adobe InDesign, fresh from the shelf, create a Data Merge with variable QR codes? Apart from the latest release of Adobe InDesign CC 2014, no – not without the use of a third party plug-in. However, this workaround does the next best thing: Creates lots of QR codes all at once, export them as uniquely named PDFs for reference in a Data Merge, and then use the built-in Data Merge feature from InDesign.

The following example is a business card for fictional clothing manufacturer “Mean Jeans”. The client would like QRcodes that feature the staff member’s email address, and if no email address appears then no QR code needs to appear. The client has supplied the database in Microsoft Excel.

There is a way to automate this task thanks to three scripts

  • QRcode.jsxbin by Jongware (as previously mentioned). When this script is used on its own, a user interface appears asking the user for the text to be coded and then a level of error correction. Jongware did allow other scripts to call upon the QRcode script, and that leads into the next script;
  • A slight modification of a script supplied by an Adobe Forums user by the handle of sergemca. The original script (found in the same Adobe Forum link as Jongware’s QRcode.jsxbin) by sergemca searched an open InDesign document for any textboxes that contained the starting words MECARD: and would then convert the contents of the complete textbox into a QR code and then apply formatting such as scaling and rotation. As this example is creating QRcodes from email addresses, the modification in this example searches an open InDesign document for any textboxes that contain the starting word mailto: . Modifications to this script are best dealt with by the scripting forum of the Adobe InDesign forum.
  • PDFStyleExporter.jsxbin by Loic Aigon. This script has featured on Colecandoo before and it is used to split a large InDesign file into single page PDFs with unique names. While researching this story I have noticed that Loic will update this script in due course, so stay tuned.

To create variable QR codes:

  1. Open the Excel file and create two fields in the database in addition to the other fields that need to appear: order, and ‘@QRcode (the ‘ will disappear in Excel after it is typed, this is intentional). In the order column, use the autofill function of Excel to add sequential numbers to this column. Leave the contents of the @QRcode field for now.1qr
  2. Save the Excel file but also save it as a “Windows Formatted Text .txt” file, and give it a name that reflects that this database is purely for the QRcoding only e.g. forcodingonly.txt2qr
  3. In Adobe InDesign, create a new file that will be used to create the QR codes first. In this example, a file that is business card size has been created (90x55mm). Once open, go to the Data Merge panel and select the data source as the recently created txt file. Once the data is available in the Data Merge panel, create two text boxes. One with the word mailto: followed by the <email> field, and another text box with the <order> field. The document should look like this3qr
  4. The order text will provide the filename in a later script, but it also must appear in the file but not get in the way of the QRcode graphic that will appear later. To make sure that this text will be live but not output in the resulting QRcode, select the textbox containing the <order> field, give the text a paragraph style called “order” – the only change is that it has no fill and stroke. Also, align the text box to be in the centre of the page. The document should now look like this4qr
  5. From the Data Merge panel, select “Create Merged Document” and merge to a new single page document.5qr
  6. This will create a large document that will contain one mailto: address per page. It is important at this stage that any mailto: addresses that don’t have email addresses in the text boxes be deleted (or else the QRcode script will make QRcodes that contain the word “mailto:” only and clearly won’t work). To delete these addresses open the Find/Change dialog box and in the GREP panel type in the word mailto:$ , leave the change field blank (as well as the formatting fields) and click Change All.6qr
  7. The document is ready to have the QR codes applied. To do this, the altered version of sergemca’s script needs to be run.
var _d = app.documents[0];
var _allStories = _d.stories;
for(var nx=_allStories.length-1;nx>=0;nx--){
    var _storyAllTextFrames = _allStories[nx].textContainers;
    for(var mx=_storyAllTextFrames.length-1;mx>=0;mx--){
         _storyAllTextFrames[mx].select(); // change page
         if(_storyAllTextFrames[mx].contents.indexOf('mailto:')==0){
             var obj = app.doScript(new File(app.activeScript.path+'/qrcode.jsxbin'), ScriptLanguage.JAVASCRIPT, [_storyAllTextFrames[mx].contents, 3], UndoModes.ENTIRE_SCRIPT);
             _storyAllTextFrames[mx].contents = "";
         };
    };
};

7qr

If done successfully, the InDesign file should now contain QRcodes in place of the text that contained the email addresses.

To export these QRcodes with their unique names

  1. Run the script PDFStyleExporter.jsxbin (called PDFExportCropper.jsxbin on my machine)8qr
  2. In the user interface that appears, select the paragraph style “order” and leave the rest of the dialog box as it is. In the PDF options dropdown field, select the destination to save the resulting PDFs. Once done, click the Export button.9qr

Again, if done successfully, the resulting PDF QR codes should now save to the nominated directory.

There are other ways to export single page PDFs but Loic’s script is used in the example in case a reference other than a sequential number is to be used, such as a person’s name, phone number, etc.

To incorporate these QR codes into the data merge:

  1. Return to the Excel file and in the @QRcode field, use the CONCATENATE function to take the order number and apply the .pdf suffix to it. The formula to use is: =CONCATENATE(A2,”.pdf”)10qr
  2. Save the Excel file and again, also save it as a “Windows Formatted Text .txt” file, and give it a name that reflects that this database has been qrcoded QRcoding only e.g. qrcoded.txt
  3. In Adobe InDesign, create (or open) the card that needs the QRcodes applied. Once ready for the data, go to the Data Merge panel and select the data source as the newly created txt file. Place the name, address references etc as necessary, and create a frame for the QR codes to appear.11qr
  4. Apply the qrcode field to this frame and go to the Data Merge panel and select Content Placement Options. In the dropdown field “Image Placement” select the fitting “Fill frames proportionally”.12qr
  5. Instead of using the “preview” function, go to the Data Merge panel and select the Export to PDF function and export one record only. In the example, page 7 was chosen at random.13qr
  6. Once satisfied that the merge looks like it will work, again use the Export to PDF function to export the entire merge to a PDF.

For the barcodes to fit the image, the PDFs need to import PDFs based on the bounding box. If the images are not fitting the frame properly, an additional script originally by Dave Saunders (but improved upon by Marc Autret) will allow the import option to change. The script is available from this forum and once loaded and run into InDesign, the option to select is “Content All Layers”

14qr

So there it is. It is worth noting that this is a workaround and not a direct live Data Merge solution. There are limitations to this solution:

  • Resulting codes can’t be colorised on-the-fly;
  • If the database changes, this will mean repeating the entire process, rather than simply updating the data in the data merge file once, and removing all  QRcodes created previously.
  • Because the codes are not human readable without a decoder, there is added emphasis to check, recheck and check again to make sure the merge is behaving properly.

While this is a workaround, there is no doubt that a turnkey solution is preferable. There are enough third party providers making variable barcode solutions for Adobe InDesign. The full list is available here. From memory here is a list of third party providers that provide variable QR codes as part of a complete VDP package:

  • Rorohiko’s Tada QR;
  • XMPie’s uDirect;
  • Meadows Publishing Software
  • Cacidi LiveMerge;
  • Teacup Software’s BarcodeMaker;
  • DirectSmile;
  • Objectif Lune’s Printshop Mail;

Several edits since this was first published:

  • Added a list of third party providers who provide variable QR codes and moved a reference to an individual one earlier on in the article into that list;
  • Fixed type within field chevrons that did not appear when the article was published;
  • Acknowledged that variable QR codes via Data Merge are now possible in Adobe InDesign CC 2014
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