In addition to strict EU-wide regulations, it is above all the consumer who is making new demands on food packaging. More and more single households and elderly people as well as a growing need for “food on the run” are encouraging the food industry to rethink and to focus on safe, sustainable and easy-to-use packaging.
Best-before date and hygiene
Everyday life, including the workplace, family and leisure, can be rather a rush, and so we often decide spontaneously where and when we should eat, whether we should eat now or later or perhaps at home or on the go. Sometimes we even change our minds. Many consumers therefore feel that the safety aspect plays a key role in food packaging. Ideally, food packaging should be easily and safely resealable. Another point that is receiving more and more attention is the precise predictability of the best-before date for a food product. This is an area where mathematical simulation tools can be helpful, as they provide maximum accuracy. Efficient packaging processes can satisfy customer demands and prevent products from being spoilt.
Packaging manufacturers are keen to ensure that their products are sustainable. It is good for the environment, for their own corporate image and often also for their cost efficiency. Photo: ipack14_MK6466.jpg, Messe Düsseldorf.
Factors that impact the production of packaging for food and beverages include not only the quality of the food, but also environmental considerations. As well as avoiding food losses – which is, for instance, the focus of the Save Food initiative – packaging manufacturers are increasingly using materials which are either recyclable themselves or which are made from renewable resources that can be recycled after use. Moreover, it reduces production costs and boosts a company’s image.
Another major aspect is convenience. Customers want to have packaging that is easy to handle: bags which can be opened without hassle while driving, microwavable boxes and ready-to-eat dishes in grease-free foil are just as much in demand as packaging sizes to suit single people, large families and the elderly.
Another area where major demands are made on manufacturers of food packaging is the legal side. No hazardous components must touch the food within the packaging, the flavour must remain unaffected, and the food must not change its original appearance and taste. Migration from the packaging to the food is counteracted by specific solutions involving barrier properties which differ from one material to another. After all, when metal and glass are processed, they react differently from, say, plastics or organic polymers. Moreover, the level of permeability for vapours, liquids and light depends on the food item. Whereas frozen food usually requires no more than one or two layers, the risk of migration in a fresh product rises with its fat content. Acidic food items that need to have a long shelf life should be pasteurised or sterilised, using heat. And, of course, the food must not cause any discolouring in the packaging. High-quality films serve to protect a product during transportation, distribution and use.
The demands on food packaging are growing: Safety, sustainability and convenience have come to be standard consumer requirements. Photo: ProCarton
Innovative manufacturing processes About one billion film packages are produced for consumer goods each year. Manufacturers are continually endeavouring to find efficient production solutions. Two new manufacturing techniques are now available that contribute to greater safety in food packaging.
Saudi Basic Industries Corporation The Saudi Arabian chemical and metal group Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) has created an innovative polymer mixing process that increases the robustness of shrink and stretch films used for the protection of food packaging. It reduces cracks in thin materials and increases the processing speed. These PE and PP plastics are used, above all, in the manufacturing of packaging for fresh and refrigerated food, as they help towards a particularly long shelf life.
Fraunhofer Institutes 90 per cent of film packaging intended for private use is sealed with hot tools. But this so-called contact method means that traces of the packaged product can accidentally reach the sealed seam from time to time, so that the package loses its tightness. So far the only way this fault could be detected was through spotchecks or through inspections applied to each package. In the future such work can be avoided, thanks to a device developed by the Fraunhofer Institutes in Freiburg and Dresden. Working together, they have created a thin-layer temperature sensor which assesses the packaging process on the actual sealing track. Known as inline monitoring, this process automatically conveys information about the packaging unit for each sealing process. It discerns temperature fluctuations and then adjusts the machine straightaway. This is made possible by high-precision sensors, coated with extremely thin thermal elements. They can even detect residues of ground coffee, thus leading to long-term savings in terms of effort, time and money.