The importance of food labelling is vital to help consumers choose, store and prepare food properly. So how do visually impaired people cope? While technology is advancing to improve access for the partially sighted, the food industry is not terribly good at letting people know. Bernice Hurst investigates an issue that affects more shoppers every day.

Stay alert, responsive and innovative to succeed goes the constantly chanted mantra of the food industry. But as with most things, here, too, size matters. Some try to draw lines defining the size of minority audiences whose requirements are too specialised to fit in with majority demands. Others can see the relationship between different groups and find ways of adapting what suits one to what will suit another.

A case in point is shoppers with visual disabilities. While some efforts have been made to provide clear information for the visually impaired, the relatively small size of their community has prevented them becoming high priority in their own right.

One set of problems being endured by visually impaired people is on the verge of being resolved through two 21st century phenomena - baby boomers' lengthening lifespans and their insistence on harnessing technology for their own convenience.

Even physically fit baby boomers may, by virtue of Mother Nature's whims, develop difficulties reading small print. Visually impaired people need large, clear print. Such needs are specifically contrary to more pressing demands for greater information on packaging which, in turn, requires smaller print. Greater numbers of consumers with restricted sight due to age are making this issue more prominent, however.

Multi-pronged strategy

Equally important is the flexibility and adaptability of modern technology. Convergence allows multiple audiences to be addressed with a single solution. While trying to squeeze extra information onto labels makes large typefaces impractical, web sites for home research supplemented by portable and in-store scanners could become a lifeline.

In the UK, the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) has worked for several years with food manufacturers and retailers. Although funding restrictions make relationships reactive, rather than proactive, Digital Policy Development Manager Julie Howell maintains that much has been accomplished. Two supermarkets, Waitrose and Tesco, have now made their websites more accessible according to universally established guidelines.

Manufacturers are investigating other label possibilities, including Braille messages on top of printed words to advise customers of a telephone number they can use to access information in other formats.

RNIB chief scientist Dr John Gill points to the European mandatory standard for marking containers of hazardous substances. An embossed triangle, called a "tactile danger warning", should at the very least alert people to potential dangers so that oven cleaner, for example, is not mistaken for hairspray. This is an area, says Dr Gill, where retailers can provide significant assistance by making customers aware of the symbol and its meaning. Policy officer, Helen Dearman, says that progress is also being made on ways of using scanners in-store to deliver barcode information by audio means.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Dr Michael Richmond of Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions (PTIS) highlights work done by the University of Michigan's School of Packaging. Like Richmond, the University's Dr Laura Bix believes the issue of assistance to the visually impaired is significant. Part of her role is to monitor developments from companies such as EnVision and Rx Talks which market portable scanners and prescription readers.

Talking packaging

Website accessibility is proving a boon to some people but there will always be others without computers. En-Vision's i.d.mate II can be used with or without a personal computer. This portable contraption reads barcodes in-store as well as recording verbal messages from its owner, recognising packages and churning out instructions, ingredients, nutritional information, package size, warnings and any other miscellany on the label.

Novel and beneficial uses for technology now available only in its simplest incarnations are being given broader consideration. While shoppers debate the convenience - or otherwise - of self-scanning as they pace grocery aisles, back in a laboratory scientists are looking at ways of getting the barcodes to release their secrets in audio form, with or without earphones to restrict potential cacophony. Everything from a simple identity to the most detailed nutritional information and cooking advice can be recorded and read out to those whose sight is restricted. Presumably kiosks containing terminals with accessible designs for easy reading and printing are another possibility.

Progressing onwards, customers who take their own portable devices shopping with them, can return home and attach them to computers whose programmes have been adapted to easily readable displays or Braille printers, if that is the method of choice. Or played again in the kitchen as a reminder of what has been purchased and how it can be used, ensuring safety and lack of confusion at the same time. Conversely, information can be recorded at home and checked in-store to make sure shoppers can easily find and buy what they seek.

The pharmaceutical industry is moving faster than the food industry, in part because of legislation. En-Vision's ScripTalk system for prescriptions comprises an auxiliary smart label printed and programmed by the pharmacist for reading at home with a hand-held reader. MedivoxRx uses disposable talking bottles whose pushbutton mechanism activates an audio description of the product and its instructions. As well as the pharmacist's facility to programme the bottle, customers can use a specially designed recorder to input their own information. Rex, as it is called, accepts all spoken languages.

Helen Dearman sees these as positive signs. Much of the technology used for prescriptions is equally applicable to food. There are opportunities for adaptation and sharing that could prove beneficial for all those with problems reading labels.

Spreading the word creates demand

Then, too, there is the perennial problem of telling people that information is available, where and how it can be accessed. As Dr Gill points out, visually impaired British people don't expect accessible information therefore they don't request it, leading to retailers and manufacturers believing that there is no demand to which they need respond.

Where they have been proactive, making its presence known is essential. Waitrose is the first UK supermarket to achieve RNIB accreditation with a site full of detail on products, nutrition, recipes etc. Tesco is also working with RNIB but so far only to make its grocery sales more accessible. Waitrose notes on its website that all its printed material is available on tape and further promotes this in publications distributed in-store. Tesco offers no visual clues anywhere on its main web site to the existence of its access site.

Advice on making written material, including websites, more visually accessible comes from organisations in several countries. RNIB's See It Right pack contains information and instructions for every conceivable type of printed matter. Bobby, available worldwide from American corporation Watchfire, is "an accessibility software tool designed to help expose and repair barriers to accessibility and encourage compliance with existing accessibility guidelines". It tests pages using guidelines established by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

The growing number of people with a common disability may, in fact, stimulate implementation of simple solutions. In May 2004, just-food.com reported that Austrian supermarket Adeg was introducing systems designed to make life simpler for older shoppers. Large print on labels and signs, non-slip floors, reading glasses and even magnifying glasses are available in branches in Vienna and Salzburg with more planned by the end of the year.

Such basic concepts, combined with more sophisticated computers and scanners, educational pointers to web sites, embossed hazard symbols and audio materials can provide a relatively inexpensive but extremely valuable tool for a group of customers with special needs that have, to date, not been well met.