Cover Story: Food Packaging and Consumer Safety
Like any good relationship, the bond between a brand and a consumer is built on trust. And when it comes to buying food for themselves and their families, consumers have a reasonable expectation for brands to maintain food safety as a top priority.
Packaging of course, plays an essential role in keeping food safe throughout its journey from its manufacturer to the consumer. That’s why Dr. Liliana Casal-Wardle, senior director of food safety for The Acheson Group consulting firm, explains that communication between brands and package printers needs to happen early and often, with both sides working together to ensure the long journey an item takes from its point of origin to the consumer is a safe one.
“You want to know that the structure and printing quality selected is going to maintain product safety and product quality throughout the shelf life because that’s the consumer expectation,” Casal-Wardle says. “You have to really know if that’s the right structure, and understand what is happening to your product throughout time. That is important to protect brands, because failure is what makes consumers mistrusting of the brand.”
Food Safety and the Consumer Connection
When assessing the food safety attributes of a package, a good place to start is with an understanding of how food manufacturers evaluate risk, explains Mary Hoffman, director of food safety for The Acheson Group. In most instances, she says that these risks can be divided into three distinct categories, each with their own considerations and necessary precautions.
Biological risks, Hoffman says, include the potential contamination that can stem from bacteria or viruses coming into contact with the food, along with potential environmental hazards, such as oxygen exposure in certain foods. Physical risk, meanwhile, covers the potential for a foreign object to be introduced to the product that could result in choking or other injury.
While biological and physical risks should not be overlooked, Hoffman says that it is the chemical risk considerations that lead to much of the conversation around packaging’s role in food safety. In addition to concerns of ink or other consumables migrating through the packaging and onto the food product, Hoffman explains that the environmental conditions that a product and package will be exposed to need to be fully outlined when addressing chemical risk.
“You also need to think about packaging compatibility with the intended storage and handling conditions,” Hoffman says. “For example, if this package is going to be frozen, how is this packaging going to hold up to those conditions? If it’s going to have to travel a long way, is it going to hold up to potentially being jostled around or stacked upon?”
Additionally, Hoffman says that when assessing chemical risk, the interaction between the package and its intended contents must be considered. For example, she explains that an acidic product could pose a scenario in which the container liner begins to peel. In this example, she explains that this package and liner could be safe to use in another application, but when the contents change, it could have a negative impact on the package.
While the ability to perform in varying environments is an important function of a food package, another essential food safety capability is for it to be able to protect the contents from outside contaminants that could potentially enter the packaging.
Dr. Kay Cooksey, a professor and the Cryovac Endowed Chair of Clemson University’s Food, Nutrition, and Packaging Sciences Department, explains that the seal integrity of a package is an essential line of defense against potential contaminants. She explains that each packaging format has a different type of seal however, and understanding how to ensure the strength of those seals is imperative to keeping in line with food safety regulations.
“Your seal integrity is going to be most important because that’s going to be the only thing preventing you from having an ingress of something that would cause a problem,” Cooksey says. “In metal cans, it’s the double seam. In flexible packaging, it’s the heat seal. If it’s a glass jar, then of course it’s the lid.”
But beyond a package’s role in ensuring a food item does not become damaged or spoiled, food packaging is directly tied to overall quality control, which when compromised, can lead to concerns among consumers.
An example Cooksey points to is one company’s attempt to develop an environmentally-friendly package by utilizing reclaimed ocean plastic. While the concept from a sustainability standpoint was sound, consumers quickly questioned the quality of the product when the packaging revealed an odor of dead fish. The unpleasant odor may not have presented a safety issue, but any doubt that the consumer has about the integrity of the product can be damaging to the brand.
“Everyone is trying to simplify their materials so they can easily be recycled,” Cooksey says. “For food, it’s really important that we don’t have any contaminants left in that recycled material from either the original use of it, or from what happens when it’s going through recycling.”
While at its core, packaging serves as a barrier to protect the product inside from outside forces, it is not always impenetrable. The potential for ink to migrate from the surface of the product onto the food inside is a significant concern for brand owners, and understanding how to mitigate this issue is key for all members of the packaging supply chain.
To help reduce this concern, many ink manufacturers have developed and launched low-migration inks, which under the proper conditions, lower the risk of migration. However, before utilizing a low migration ink, Rebecca Lipscomb, assistant director of global regulatory affairs for ink manufacturer INX International, says that package printers need to be educated on how they can ensure these inks perform as desired.
“Ink companies often use low migration as a way to designate products that have been designed with Good Manufacturing Principles protocols in mind, and are typically meant to be a best option for mitigation of migration risk (i.e. higher molecular weights equals less opportunity for migration),” she said in an email. “It’s oftentimes perceived that the printer/converter does not need to take any precautions with low migration and this simply isn’t true. For example, if a UV low migration ink isn’t cured properly, it may no longer be low migration. It’s also important to follow the instructions set by your ink supplier for application and curing so that your low migration ink is a low migration ink when printed.”
Beyond educational initiatives focused on the proper use of materials, printers and converters should also make sure they are collaborating with their suppliers to understand all of the various components that go into an ink, substrate, or other consumable. For example, Hoffman explains that food manufacturers are well aware of the various standards they need to adhere to, and will not be shy about asking their packaging providers for details about the materials they use.
With so much at stake, Hoffman explains that food brands will want to ensure their packaging is being sourced from a company with rigorous approval processes in place.
“As a food manufacturer, if I’m asking questions about my packaging supplier, I’m asking questions about their supplier approval processes,” she says. “Do they have any sort of quality certifications or food safety certifications? And how are they making sure they are meeting all the requirements that they have?”
Encouraging Communication Across the Board
One of the challenges of food safety in packaging is that there is not a singular set of rules and regulations that brands, retailers, and printers can refer to as a way to ensure safety. Instead, Lipscomb explains, printers and converters should be well versed in the various regionalized regulations, while initiating conversations with their customers about the brand’s requirements, expectations, and desires when it comes to the safety of the packaging.
“[Printers and converters] should have an understanding of their customers’ expectations, as well as an understanding of how each component in the package fits into government regulations, which vary by region, state, or nation,” she writes. “As an example, most regulations are not written specifically for printing ink, yet the ink may fall into scope based on the chemicals involved, which impact the package and final product put into the marketplace.”
Because the packaging and food safety regulations, requirements, and permissible materials can vary by geography, brand, and retailer, Casal-Wardle explains that package printers and converters should take the initiative to conduct outreach to the various industry organizations that can help them address their customers’ needs.
Communication with the various packaging associations is a good place to start, she says, as they often maintain their own databases that they can share with the industry. Additionally, seeking out conferences and workshops can help keep packaging manufacturers abreast of the latest developments in food safety, risks, and best practices to adhere to.
“Every packaging supplier should not feel alone in this process, or try to answer all the questions by themselves,” Casal-Wardle says. “They have to look for information, and they have to build teams with other industries they’re going to be delivering the packaging to. … It is a complex world, but they never should feel that they are alone.”
It does not always have to be up to the converter to initiate communication around food safety issues, however. For example, Cooksey explains that in many instances, converters get left out of conversations surrounding the lifespan of a product and the conditions it will be exposed to.
“I think a lot of the converters don’t necessarily know what could be interacting with their inks or adhesives as part of the converting process,” she says. “Once the food goes in it, what happens to it after that doesn’t usually get communicated very well. They just want to make sure that it’s going to adhere, it’s going to be scuff resistant, it’s going to have the gloss that it should have. Yes, we can manufacture it, and we can make sure it looks nice, but it doesn’t always get communicated what the other interactions are, such as heat it could get exposed to.”
While there are numerous complexities and stakeholders involved, Hoffman adds that food safety is the responsibility of the entire supply chain. And with different knowledge bases and resources available, the more communication and openness to sharing, the better off the entire industry will be.
“Food safety insights or strategies should not be something someone should consider to be their competitive advantage,” she says. “It should be something that is shared within the industry.”