The Role of Packaging in Food Safety

In today’s competitive market, packaging is not just a necessity but also serves as a means of differentiation, helping brands to stand out by offering sustainable packaging options. Effective packaging not only ensures the health and safety of consumers but also plays a vital role in building trust and brand loyalty within the food industry.

Product Protection Challenges in Packaging

Packaging, particularly when crafted from plastic, frequently draws criticism for its contribution to excessive waste volumes, carbon emissions, and resource depletion, according to an expert article published recently by interpack. Here, experts explain how amidst these concerns, the packaging’s primary function—safeguarding products to ensure they reach consumers intact—is often overlooked.

Yet, the process is indispensable for facilitating the transportation, storage, and preservation of goods, guaranteeing their hygiene, quality, authenticity, and integrity. This role is particularly vital for food and pharmaceutical items, though numerous other products would similarly face wastage without adequate packaging. Consequently, ensuring product safety remains a paramount objective in the packaging industry, a focal point underscored by exhibitors at last year’s interpack event. The fundamental objective of effective packaging solutions is to offer optimal protection for their contents.

This is particularly evident and significant within the food sector. Innovative and intelligent packaging solutions are instrumental in curbing food wastage. At the previous year’s interpack exhibition, attendees gained insights into methods to minimize food loss during filling processes, achieve reliable product inspection and high-quality sealing, and prevent unwanted contamination. An often-overlooked aspect in packaging discussions is that only a small fraction of a product’s environmental impact can be attributed to packaging, particularly concerning food items. For instance, butter packaging accounts for merely 0.4% of the overall carbon footprint of the product, while a milk carton contributes approximately 4%.

These statistics, derived from a study by the German packaging and environmental association AGVU, encompass the entire lifecycle of the packaging, including disposal. The lion’s share of the environmental impact is therefore associated with the packaged product itself. Approximately one-third of food produced globally is lost or wasted within the value chain annually. However, initiatives like the Save Food Initiative, initiated in 2011 by interpack and Messe Düsseldorf, are actively addressing this issue. Packaging plays a pivotal role in the events organized by these companies to combat food wastage.

Addressing Issues Related to Materials

Food packaging continues to rely on multilayer plastic composites due to their versatility in adapting to the specific protection requirements of various products, the interpack experts point out. However, the challenge lies in the fact that currently, multilayer packaging is not recyclable, resulting in its disposal in landfills or incineration. Addressing this issue, the Circular FoodPack research project, slated until 2024, involves scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging (IVV) striving to establish a closed-loop recycling system for food packaging, enabling its safe reuse in direct contact with food.

Their focus is on developing innovative monomaterial packaging that matches multilayer composites in protective capabilities while facilitating closed-loop recycling and reuse. Meeting stringent regulatory standards is paramount for incorporating recycled materials into food packaging. EU Regulation 2022/1616 mandates functional barriers with well-documented properties. In response, Fraunhofer IVV has devised a screening method to assess functional barrier layers aimed at preventing undesirable substance migration into food.

This approach involves evaluating thin organic and inorganic coatings used as barrier layers, followed by practical testing later in the project. According to interpack, while paper is not always the primary choice for food packaging, especially for items with fatty or liquid contents due to the inherent limitations of fiber-based materials, there’s a growing shift away from plastic towards paper packaging. In instances where packaging encounters fatty or liquid products, effective barrier protection becomes imperative.

BASF addresses this need with Ecovio, a certified compostable plastic derived from renewable resources. Introducing a new line of extrusion-coated paper and cardboard packaging to its Ecovio range, BASF offers a solution approved for food contact, boasting robust barrier properties against liquids, fats, oils (including mineral oils), and excellent thermostability to withstand boiling water up to 100°C.

Furthermore, Ecovio adheres well to various paper and cardboard surfaces, making it suitable for a wide array of paper-based applications, including dairy product cups, frozen food containers, sandwich wrapping paper, cereal bar packaging, confectionery, and snack bowls, as well as hot and cold drink or soup to-go cups. Emphasizing its commercial viability, the manufacturer asserts that the new extrusion-coating process achieves speeds comparable to those of polyethylene (PE), with the ability to deliver similar coating weights, enabling the production of very thin coatings depending on the application and equipment used.

To read the entire article, please access your complimentary e-copy of Frozen Food Europe January-February, 2024 issue here.