Marrying food safety and sustainability in packaging

by Tom Egan, PMMI
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The Consumer Goods Forum worked alongside large food companies to simplify expiration labeling.

Consumers, manufacturers and brand owners require a lot from packaging. We need packages to promote and protect products, provide necessary ingredient, instruction and safety information and enhance supply chain efficiency to ensure products reach consumers while maintaining the highest safety and quality standards. 

Over the last decade, as sustainability has become a priority, we have asked even more of our packaging materials. Companies are spending more on packaging made of sustainable materials, including recycled corrugated cardboard, high-density polyethylene and recycled polyethylene film, according to the 2017 PMMI State of the Industry U.S. Packaging Machinery Report.

When considering sustainability and thinner materials, food companies must look for solutions that allow the package to do what it needs to do: protect the product. Part of sustainability of food packaging is lightweight, more sustainable materials. The other part is keeping food fresh and protected throughout the supply chain, reducing food waste. 

Safety is non-negotiable for every food manufacturer and retailer. Packaging innovations like oxygen scavengers and temperature indicators offer solutions to increase shelf life of food products. These technologies provide an ideal solution for food manufactures prioritizing safety and working toward reducing their ecological footprint. 

Innovations in sustainability
The past few years have seen great advancement in technology and nanomaterials for tracking products throughout the supply chain, verification of the authenticity of products and brand protection. In particular, supply chain traceability has seen great growth. Companies like FoodLogiQ offer software that allows full farm-to-fork traceability when combined with packaging serialization. As consumers, we trust that our food supply moves through the supply chain safely. Supply chain traceability technology makes it easier for food companies to ensure their products remain safe and to react quickly to product recalls. 

Fresh and perishable food products can benefit from the use of temperature indicators to ensure customers are receiving products at their optimal quality. These indicators track a food’s temperature history and change color, showing how long food is still consumable. For example, Freshpoint produces temperature indicators that change color faster at higher temperatures, and labels that can be adjusted for the shelf life of various foods. The company also offers a mobile app, which consumers can use to determine the remaining shelf life of their product. This helps ensure consumer safety and also prevents disposal of food that is still consumable. 

Oxygen absorbers and scavengers are another solution for companies that want to boost sustainability by reducing food waste. Companies like MultiSorb, Clariant and Mitsubishi Gas Chemical produce oxygen absorbing technology that protects food products from spoilage, mold, color and flavor change and loss of nutritional value. Oxygen absorbers have applications across food categories — Multisorb’s FreshPax and Clariant’s Oxy-Guard packets and strips work well with dry packaged foods, while Mitsubishi’s NutraSave resin is better suited for retort packaging applications. By increasing shelf life and preserving the fresh look and taste of food, oxygen absorbers do their part to decrease food waste.  

Temperature indicators can help consumers receive products at peak quality.

Making sense of expiration dates
Confusion over “use by,” “sell by” and “best by” dates is a major contribution to food waste. With more than 10 different date labels on packages, consumers often find it difficult to discern when and for how long a food product is okay for consumption, and they end up discarding perfectly safe products. 

In September 2017, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a network of 400 of the world’s largest food and consumer goods companies, announced an initiative to fight food waste. By asking retailers and food producers to simplify food date labels, the CFG aims to harmonize expiration dates around the globe. 

The voluntary initiative calls on food manufacturers to use just two standard phrases for expiration dates — “BEST if Used By” and “Use By.” “BEST if Used By” will convey the quality of the food product, meaning that the food might not taste or perform its best after the date, but is still safe to consume. In contrast, “Use By” will apply to highly perishable products, which should be eaten by the date listed on the package and discarded after that date.

Be safe, not sorry 
When it comes to food safety, there is no room for negotiation. Whether by keeping food fresher for longer or by informing consumers on when food is safe to eat, modernizations in packaging technology and initiatives from industry organizations offer solutions that both protect food and offer sustainability benefits.

Packaging professionals seeking the latest in food safety and sustainability technology can explore innovations at PMMI’s Pack Expo East, being held April 16 -18, 2018, in Philadelphia. Located within 200 miles of a third of the nation’s consumer packaged goods companies, it will draw an expected 6,000 attendees and 400 suppliers of advanced packaging equipment, automation, robotics and controls, materials, containers, printing and labeling technologies. To register, visit www.packexpoeast.com.
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