The pandemic has spawned entirely new tasks and challenges for the food label market, topping a long list of factors shaping this segment.
The pandemic has spawned entirely new tasks and challenges for the food label market, topping a long list of factors shaping this segment.
Increasingly, consumers desire information about the health, safety, environmental and socioeconomic characteristics of food products. These traits often cannot be detected by sight, smell, or taste – so consumers must use food labels to select products that meet their needs and preferences.
‘Brands only have eight seconds to grab a consumer's attention. A good food label needs to entice a consumer to pick a product among hundreds of others,’ says Kim Hensley, senior marketing manager at Mactac, a supplier of pressure-sensitive materials, heavily focusing on the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector.
‘A good label, in general, has two main functions: to draw the attention of the shopper to the package on the supermarket shelf and provide the necessary and required product information to the consumer,’ agrees Marika Knorr, head of sustainability and communication at CCL Label, one of the world’s largest label converting groups. ‘And now a third main function has surfaced in the packaging recycling discussion: the label needs to perform well at the end-of-life of the packaging. It must support and not hinder recycling. For this reason, CCL has developed a whole range of labels which we call the sustainable product family.’
‘A good food label should provide nutritional facts such as serving size and ingredients as well as properly displaying the brand, clearly stating what it is and including design elements that help it stand out on the shelf,’ adds Jay Wittmann, sales operations of intelligent labels at Avery Dennison Label and Packaging Materials.
‘Consumers are smarter than ever, and the focus of informed consumers is on a clear understanding of product ingredients, content, and nutritional claims,’ agrees Kevin Frydryk, regional vice president of sales and marketing at Resource Label Group, a consortium of 24 converters across North America. ‘Label information directed at clearly informing the consumer in simple terms will become an expectation for all food products. Brands that are transparent in communicating product ingredients and authenticity will develop an enhanced level of consumer trust that has a favorable impact on brand value.’
‘Brand managers and packaging engineers want a label that prints great, is positioned correctly, and has superior, lasting adhesion. In refrigerated labeling, if outdoor temperatures are hot and humid, labels can flag or fall off when transporting from store to home,’ adds Kim Hensley. ‘In any case, the last thing a brand owner wants is for a label to degrade or come off a package.’
According to Helmuth Munter, segment manager for Labels and Package Printing at Durst Group, an Italian manufacturer of digital printing equipment, food labels are mostly inspected at a close distance on the shelf, so they should combine the right balance between appealing design, print quality and delivering information. ‘To grab consumers’ attention, there are a number of influential design qualities such as the right choice of material, appealing graphics, colors that pop, good readable fonts, and appealing finish,’ he says. ‘Other important aspects to be considered are migration and food safety that needs to be taken care of, depending on the food that is packed and the packaging itself.’
As in the beverage industry, an increasing number of brand owners specializing in food production are re-thinking packaging design and looking for alternative materials and finishing methods to help them stand out amongst the supermarket competition.
‘From iridescent films and metallic substrates that catch the consumer’s eye with a flash, to textured tactile printing varnishes and embossing that give off a high-end feel, packaging materials that create a special effect aregrowing in popularity and, in turn, sales of specially packaged products are growing as well,’ agrees Mactac’s Kim Hensley. ‘With the goal of standing out as much as possible, we need to help brand owners with product differentiation such as unique adhesives and specialty facestocks to make products stand out and to give the perception of quality.’
Pandemic safety guidelines have changed how consumers behave and make purchasing decisions on the shop floor. Frequent use of hand disinfectants has become a norm and shoppers now avoid touching items unnecessarily to minimize contamination risk. Paradoxically, tactile effects have recently been seen as a trend rapidly growing in popularity.
Matt Francklow, managing director at UK-based pre-press powerhouse Creation Reprographics, is seeing a renewed relationship with touch. ‘As a result of the pandemic, we’ve become a very “hands-off” population, but one unexpected outcome of this is a brand-new opportunity to reconnect with consumers through specialist packaging finishes and coatings,’ he says. ‘New tactile finishes such as soft touch, rough texture, and paper feel, along with matte and gloss coating combinations, integration of hot and cold foiling, and clever use of spot varnishes, are all proving to be a real hit. We are expecting this uptick to continue and accelerate through the year.’
Durst Group’s Helmut Munter cautions that while new labeling trends come and go, the need for clean, smart, convenient and sustainable labels remains as important as ever.
‘The number one prevailing trend, which will surely last for many more years, is sustainability and environmental friendliness. There is a noticeable and growing consumer awareness when it comes to the environmental behavior of brands. Most consumers identify themselves as environmentally aware, and an increasing number are willing to pay more for sustainable and recyclable packaging.’
Kim Hensley also sees producing less waste and increasing productivity as long term trends. ‘Sustainable labeling options are growing and being asked for every day,’ she states. ‘The label and packaging industry is moving to implement ultra-thin facestocks and liners to give a greater number of labels per roll and fewer roll changes. This helps achieve productivity gains while reducing material, logistics, packaging and warehouse costs.’
Consumers understand that climate change is not on hold because of the pandemic. Many retailers and brand owners have already published their sustainability goals and guidelines about packaging and labeling to drive design towards more sustainable and circular options.
‘According to McKinsey & Company, 79 percent of consumers say they include sustainable packaging in their purchase decisions,’ says Pascal Oliveira, director of global business development for the food sector at UPM Raflatac. ‘More and more people want to select food that is not only sustainably produced but comes in sustainable packaging. We do not know how long the pandemic will still shake our world, but we can already say that sustainability in food packaging is more than a trend. I believe that sustainable food packaging is gradually becoming the new norm.’
Constructing food labels and packaging that perform well in the recycling chain has led to the development of new technologies including wash-off labels and low-density polyolefin materials that detach easily from PET packaging and can be separately sorted afterwards.
‘The biggest challenge we are working on is to make the label itself more recyclable – ideally in a closed loop,’ says CCL’s Marika Knorr. ‘Many labels are already recycled in mixed polyolefin recycling streams, but it would be great to make new labels out of old ones. A great example is our lighthouse project where we are investing in technology at our Austrian Völkermarkt site and will be able to recycle stretch sleeves in a closed loop.’
‘We are here to solve challenges when it comes to the right solution for the right end-use, all the while keeping aligned with sustainability targets,’ agrees UPM Raflatac’s Pascal Oliveira. ‘One great example is our RafNXT+ product range, which is verified by the Carbon Trust and helps to mitigate climate change. As well as great shelf appeal and technical performance it helps reduce CO2 emissions. In general, going beyond fossils is at the core of our sustainability approach, and here we see great value for all players along the value chain.’
If consumers are increasingly interested in the overall sustainability of the products they buy, then the challenge for brands is how to get that story in front of the consumer.
‘Brands are starting to use RFID technology to track and trace their product throughout the value chain,’ comments Avery Dennison’s Jay Wittmann, ‘enabling them to show their sustainable practices and prove that no illicit products entered the supply chain. They are also using a combination of triggers (NFC, image recognition, QR Code) to engage with the consumer to share their brand story and the product's journey.’
‘Combining sustainability and smart labeling, as in virtual reality, could be very interesting,’ agrees CCL’s Marika Knorr. ‘Interaction with the packaging can be a great way to educate the consumer about recycling or the packaging's sustainability.’
Smart labeling features are being used more frequently to improve food safety via digital data systems for tracing ingredients, vendor supplies, and inventory throughout the production process. Simultaneously, QR codes provide tracking data to improve inventory management, traceability, and a faster response to potential supply problems.
‘Consumer comfort in using their personal devices to learn more about products will become commonplace and will become key to developing brand loyalty,’ agrees Resource Label Group’s Kevin Frydryk. ‘Enhanced security provided through chip technology will further protect brand value and enhance long-term consumer trust. Additionally, technology will drive the role of the smart label as a key functional component of the product and its performance in many vertical markets.’
Secured take outs
Food labeling and packaging became even more critical in communicating health and safety practices as consumers turned to home dining, food delivery and online grocery shopping during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a survey conducted by US Foods, 30 percent of drivers from food delivery services admit to tasting the food they are responsible for delivering. Food security seals and tamper-resistant packaging are therefore necessary for consumer safety.
‘The pandemic caused a spike in consumer demand,’ comments Pascal Oliveira. ‘People are not able to go out to eat and therefore purchase more food from the grocery store or online for delivery. We have seen food delivery and restaurants utilize labels to seal packaging to give confidence to their customers that they were not opened or altered after they left the store. States are beginning to mandate tamper-evident closures on all deliveries from third-party services – California is the first to mandate this with the Fair Food Delivery Act.’
‘We have been selling security labels to deter tampering, defeat counterfeiting, and protect consumers for years. With the recent pandemic, we now have a new group of markets for consumer protection,’ notes Mactac’s Kim Hensley. ‘Food packaging security seals provide a clear indication when fraudulent tampering is attempted and prevents the reuse and re-application of labels. Consumers want to trust in safe food delivery.’
‘The pandemic has certainly led to an increased awareness of hygiene, not only of the food in the package but of the packaging itself,’ adds CCL’s Marika Knorr. ‘This has led to the development of materials that have a surface that is antimicrobial.’
The CCL-developed antimicrobial film uses silver ions to destabilize and eliminate the bacteria from packaging. The film can be adhered to a variety of surfaces to provide long-term protection.
What’s next for food labels?
‘Overall, the food labeling industry is driven by global population growth, economic expansion, and rising consumption. Food labeling is a stable and steadily growing market and offers great opportunities for the label industry, in which digital print will be an essential technological tool to master current and future challenges,’ predicts Durst’s Helmuth Munter.
CCL Label believes that sustainability will continue be a central priority for food labeling: ‘The whole industry needs to move towards designing consumer packaging and FMCG products for recycling,’ says Marika Knorr. ‘This can only be achieved by the collaboration of the whole industry. CCL has joined the key initiatives to drive this change at a larger scale. For example, we are active in the CELAB consortium that is looking into recycling of liner material and the label itself. We also support the HolyGrail 2.0 project for better sorting, and contribute to several initiatives that are working on improving PET recycling like PETcore. We also signed the Global Commitment of the New Plastics Economy led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.’
Mactac’s Kim Hensley also highlights the importance of sustainability. ‘Brand owners and designers seek packaging that supports consumer recycling,’ she says. ‘PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola promise to boost recycling content by 2025. Organizations such as The Association of Plastic Recyclers is helping with guidelines to make this happen.’
Avery Dennison's Jay Wittmann cites ‘smart transparency’ as an important trend to look out for. ‘That could mean simply being able to pronounce and understand the ingredients within a product, or in the case of some proteins, how it was raised and sourced. We have seen an increase in use cases where brands are able to show the way their products were ethically raised, prove provenance, and prove that the product is actually what the label claims it is by pairing an intelligent label with blockchain technology.’