For understandable reasons, during the pandemic, retailers and consumers alike became preoccupied with safety. One particular focus has been on keeping surfaces clean to prevent the spread of COVID-19 via fomites (objects or materials likely to carry infection). Although, as the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises, “The risk of infection by the virus from food products, food packaging or bags is thought to be very low,” worries persist, so the packaging industry is meeting this heightened need for safety with products designed to guard against viral infection, even as such perennial issues as spoilage and tampering continue to be addressed with new offerings.
Indeed, when it comes to the safety of packaging, Claude Marbach, CEO of Chicago-based Ardagh Metal - Beverage North America, asserts: “There should be no weak area of a store. Consumers should be 100% confident that any purchase of food and beverages will adhere to FDA regulations and be packaged for full consumer safety.”
Well and Good
In response to the pandemic, DS Smith unveiled in December “an exclusive partnership with the company Touchguard to develop a new range of sustainable cardboard packaging to protect consumers against potentially harmful bacteria,” notes Melanie Galloway, VP of sales, marketing and innovation for packaging at London-based DS Smith, whose U.S. headquarters is in Atlanta. “Touchguard’s patented technology is effective against a number of bacteria and viruses, including envelope viruses, of which COVID-19 is a member.
“Recent surveys by DS Smith have found growing retail and consumer interest in products with hygienic packaging, especially amid the pandemic that has boosted e-commerce nationwide and increased demand for shipping boxes,” observes Galloway. “While it can never replace good hygiene best practices and procedures, 100% recyclable technology like Touchguard has the potential to bring a real and proven additional layer of protection to DS Smith customers and their consumers as packaging moves through the supply chain.”
Asked what part of a food store has the greatest need for packaging that protects against illness, spoilage or tampering, Glen Adamik, director of strategic marketing at Commerce, Calif.-based LK Packaging, says: “I can answer in three words: kitchen, case, carry.”
Adds Adamik: “Any service or retail business needs to consider the clear message its effectively performing packaging sends about the company’s safe-handling standards, especially of food or drug items. Not only will this address new demand from employees and consumers alike for tighter controls, after some hard lessons about hygiene this year, it will also address the rise in prepared goods bundled for carryout or delivery. That includes any back-of-house unload, prep or merchandising, plus front-of-house pay, pickup and arrival — with more food sales in that order.”
Regarding particular solutions, Adamik notes: “We’re producing bags now with some amazing antimicrobial technology that’s proven to kill 99.99% of coronavirus. It’s available in other products, like gloves and films, and has even been shown to extend the shelf life of certain foods.”
In considering which packaging forms are among the least likely to spread disease, retailers and consumers can have confidence in the ubiquitous can. Marbach points out that “regarding the pandemic or other communicable illnesses, the high temperatures of can manufacturing and thermal treatment across the filling process will deactivate any living virus.”
The public-health crisis has presented other concerns beyond infection with the coronavirus, however
“At Tetra Pak, we work closely with our customers to address the new retailer and consumer concerns presented by COVID-19,” observes Pedro Goncalves, VP of marketing, U.S. and Canada at the multinational company, which has head offices in Sweden and Switzerland. “Our existing packaging portfolio is already well suited to address these concerns, but there are new opportunities to deploy our technology. One example is incorporating aseptic processing and packaging to protect their products longer without the need for refrigeration. As consumers look for ways to decrease the number of trips to the grocery store by buying in bulk or ordering online, shelf-stable, long-life options are an ideal fit.”
Adds Goncalves: “In the case of dairy, aseptic packaging ... has proven more valuable than ever as we’ve managed through the pandemic. Because it keeps sensitive products like milk safe and secure for up to a year without the need for refrigeration, it won’t go bad if stored in the pantry unopened for an extended period, making it a great fit for e-commerce, buying in bulk and reducing shopping trips.”
“With the pandemic, social distancing has accelerated the online grocery shopping trend,” notes Fabio Thomazelli, executive director, global marketing, food proteins at Charlotte, N.C.-based Sealed Air. “This trend is creating the need for versatile, case-ready packaging, suitable for both e-commerce and the brick-and-mortar retail channels, both of which need to maintain the integrity of the products. ... Some of the key features in packaging in this area are robustness in distribution, leak-proof hermeticity that becomes evident when the packaging has been opened, and increased shelf-life. Additionally, centrally packed meat, with higher levels of automation/touchless solutions, have gained importance because they bring more safety to both employees and consumers, preserving social distancing, and decreasing the amount of people handling the product.”
No Spoilers Ahead
In the ongoing quest to offer packaging solutions that keep food fresher longer, manufacturers are building on their previous successes.
Marbach asserts that the can “delivers a solid barrier [against] light and air that enables ingredient integrity and protection against spoilage,” and that Ardagh is “increasing capacity to produce more beverage cans across all sizes, supporting the increasing move by our customers toward beverage cans. Beverage brands are recognizing the can’s inherent package safety advantages, as well as its strong environmental characteristics that strengthen their own sustainability platform.”
“Just about all of our packaging is designed with the right layers of materials that provide conditions that are optimal for its expected contents, including how to keep foods fresh and avoid damage from typical handling,” says LK’s Adamik, pointing to such exciting options as multifunctional Ready. Chef. Go! branded packaging he describes as “new cook-in boxes with vibrant prints on them — yes, your shopper cooks food right in the same box that’s acting as a mini merchandiser in your case and in their cart.”
Also, just out of R&D and currently being trialed with a select group of retailers and processors is a recyclable non-PVC Red Rock film that Adamik says “shows rates of the oxygen transmission fresh foods crave at levels higher than I have ever seen in an overwrap film.”
In fact, innovative technology stands to transform packaging as we know it.
“As a packaging supplier, we know that packaging technology plays a huge role in preventing spoilage and contamination,” notes Tetra Pak’s Goncalves. “From the construction of the package itself to opening mechanisms, caps and closure, each element plays a vital role in keeping the food or beverage inside safe. ... [O]ne new area that can help brands and retailers address food spoilage and contamination is smart or connected packaging.”
He goes on to explain how one of his company’s cutting-edge offerings works: “Digitalization is changing the role of packaging. The Connected Package allows food and beverage producers to turn their packages into full-scale data carriers offering increased traceability, and value for each stakeholder in the entire value chain. In future, new forms of intelligent packaging will become feasible based on a complete connection to the Internet of Things. This will enable packages and devices to talk to each other, thus providing new levels of service and insights for customers and consumers.
“Smart packaging and digital printing are the next frontiers in terms of development,” agrees Sealed Air’s Thomazelli. “We believe in a digital future in which every package has a unique digital life enabling businesses to create end-to-end traceability while improving automation and efficiency across the value chain, taking the quality control to the next level, securing the authenticity of the product.”
As a result of improved quality control, “retailers and e-retailers can get greater visibility with real-time insights, enabling distributors to track stock movements, track products through the value chain and monitor delivery performance,” Goncalves explains, adding that more sophisticated food and beverage operations would enable greater connection with consumers: “For example, connected packaging opens up a world of new possibilities to engage consumers on food safety. Imagine if intelligent packaging could communicate with smart appliances in the home, then share that information with your smartphone. You could have instant and accurate information on not only the stock of products at home, but also the remaining life of each product via technology, like dynamically updated expiration dates.”
Can’t Touch This
With product safety top of mind in the current climate, tamper-proof and -evident packaging solutions have become more crucial than ever.
“Tamper-proof packaging is extraordinarily important in the delivery of food and beverages, a key component in the building of trust in a brand,” affirms Marbach. “There is select packaging that already provides this safety and integrity, with cans at the top of that list. The tight seal and tamper-proof nature of the beverage ‘end,’ or top of the can, is clearly visible and obvious and, as we are seeing, is increasingly becoming a value-add to brands.”
He believes that the future will increasingly bring “the balance between tamper-proof packaging and the preservation of taste profiles. It won’t just be about assuring tamper-proof packaging [or] assuring an unbroken seal. The consumer taste experience is what differentiates brands, so packaging manufacturers will also have to deliver the highest standards of not only safety ... but ingredient integrity, taste and, as retail food and beverage shopping increases, shelf life.”
“Tamper evidence is intrinsic to all of our solutions,” notes Thomazelli. “Our case-ready packages are hermetically sealed and, when opened, it becomes evident. The principle of vacuum sealing, the core technology introduced by Sealed Air under the Cryovac brand since the beginning of our operations, is the most solid tamper-evidence solution. Even our resealable solutions are tamper evident. A good example of this is the Cryovac brand Multi-Seal FlexLOK package, designed to allow consumers to open and close the package multiple times, yet [it] clearly identifies if the product has been previously opened.”
“Today, all our caps and closures include some method of tamper evidence,” says Tetra Pak’s Goncalves. “In some cases, this is in the form or a two-step opening that features a cap and a pull-tab. However, in response to consumer demands for convenience and simplicity, we also offer a wide range of one-step openings that combine easy opening with distinctive tamper evidence. Instead of opening a cap and then removing a foil seal or pull-tab, these two steps are combined into one convenient twist of the cap. With the interior foil seal and clearly visible tamper-evidence ring, consumers can be confident the product is safe and secure. With the screw-cap design, it’s easy to reseal and refrigerate any remaining product.”
The company is planning to launch the 50-ounce Tetra Brik Aseptic 1500 Edge in the United States and Canada around the third quarter of 2021. According to Goncalves, “This package will deliver all the advantages of aseptic technology, but in a larger size and with our very convenient, tamper-evident WingCap opening.”
“Considering the curbside economy that shows few signs of losing steam, we’ve also developed a host of tamper-evident Fast Take branded packaging for items large and small, and items specific to food or drink deliveries,” says LK’s Adamik.
“With the addition of the Eco-Lok and the 909 Tamper-evident machine, Kwik Lok is offering additional safety and sustainability options that meet consumer demands,” Karen Reed, director of marketing and communications at the Yakima, Wash.-based company, which makes bag closures for such items as produce and baked goods. “The 909 Tamper-evident machine creates a laser stitch across the top of the bag,” explains Reed. “Consumers can easily tell if tampering has occurred before they make a purchase. Once they have their purchase at home, the consumer can reclose the bag with our Eco-Lok to maintain freshness.”
Noting that “we’ll continue to look at food packaging through a sort of [personal protective equipment] lens” even after the pandemic is history, Adamik predicts: “I think we’ll see more configurations in packaging that include those three elements of antimicrobial, extended shelf life and tamper evidence. Packaging could even do its part to help rebuild communities as communal contact slowly comes back into fashion — for example, made-in-store meal kits, crafted for pickup and delivery, designed by local chefs and with their local restaurants’ brands, on the shelves of their local grocers.