Pharmaceutical packaging requires a high level of security; cosmetics packaging seeks to entice the consumer, but food packaging must do both.
Food labels and packaging must be sterile to protect the product, as well as to lure the consumer with a promise - such as taste, freshness or ‘wellness’. Each category of food label has different requirements: for unpackaged products (fruit, vegetables, sometimes meat) the labeling requirements are not the same as for packed ones.
Glass jars (for jams, preserves) and plastic containers use very different label types. For chilled and frozen foods the label needs to resist temperature changes. All these categories need to have the most suitable label at the least cost.
In every part of the world – but particularly in developed countries – governments and public health bodies regulate all food packaging.
A good starting point for the study of food labels and food packaging is therefore to look at some of the key directives and regulations that food producers and packers must comply with. Designers, as well as label and pack producers must all be aware of these when selecting types faces, substrates, inks, printing processes, label types and methods of application.
DIRECTIVES AND REGULATIONS GOVERNING FOOD LABELING IN THE EUROPEAN UNION
People everywhere get anxious about the quality of the food they eat. People often worry whether the packaging, or label of what they eat, might contaminate the food. In too many cases where labels/packaging are blamed, these are false alarms.
Sometimes there may be contamination but in quantities well below those at which the substances can become a health hazard. The result of this public concern is that laws and regulations control food labeling more and more tightly.
The directives and regulations in force within the European Union and its member states are complex and not always easy to understand. The EU started to harmonize legislation on food contact materials several years ago, but fully harmonized legislation does not yet exist for all materials.
Much of the basic regulatory background is contained in Regulation (EC) N° 1935/2004 and in particular article 15 of this regulation.
Here is a summary of what this article contains:
It lays down common rules for packaging materials which come, or may come, into contact with food, either directly or indirectly. It also seeks to protect human health and consumers’ interests throughout the European Economic Area (the 28 EU member states plus Iceland and Norway).
It covers in all 17 different materials, including all papers and boards, plastics, inks, adhesives and coatings. It also covers what it calls ‘active and intelligent materials’. Any substances which can reasonably be expected to come into contact or which can transfer their constituents to food are covered by the regulation.
It determines purity standards and defines what is acceptable for food contact.
It rules that traceability measures must be in place to make it possible to recall any defective products or provide the public with specific information.
Where ‘active and intelligent materials’ (e.g. anti-microbial substances) are used the label must inform about the safe and correct use of the active ingredient.
Labeling of foods ‘shall not mislead the consumer’ (many food manufacturers could be in trouble if this regulation were to be interpreted strictly).
In Europe with its 25 official languages, member states can stipulate the language(s) which must be used on labels. However, they cannot prevent additional languages being used.
DIRECTIVES AND REGULATIONS GOVERNING FOOD LABELING FDA FOOD LABELING REQUIREMENTS
The U.S. Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) defines food ‘labeling’ very broadly. It covers all labels and other written, printed, or graphic matter upon any article or any of its containers or wrappers, or accompanying such article.
The term 'accompanying' extends to tags, leaflets, circulars, booklets, brochures, instructions, and even websites.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which amended the FFDCA requires most foods to show specific nutrition and ingredients on the label. Food, beverage and dietary supplement labels that show nutrient content claims (for example ‘low fat’ or ‘contains vitamin XYZ’) and certain health messages have to comply with specific legal requirements.
Furthermore, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) has amended the FFDCA, in part, by defining ‘dietary supplements’. It also adds specific labeling requirements for dietary supplements, and provides for optional labeling statements).
A US government advisory body exists to check compliance of any label with current rules.
This service (which must be paid for) is recommended for manufacturers and label/leaflet vendors. Further details can be found at the FDA's registrar website.
Full details are available here.
US Manufacturers and those exporting to the US will need to use the new label (see Figure 2.1) by July 26, 2018.
However, manufacturers with less than 10 million USD in annual food sales will have an additional year to comply.
Figure 2.1 Strict regulations define nutrition labels in USA. Source- FDA (Food & Drug Administration)
FOOD PRODUCTION, DISTRIBUTION AND MARKETING
There are nine billion people on the planet, and rising, and they all need to eat. The packaging and labeling industry is there to ensure that food products get to the consumer in good condition and with relevant information about the product in question.
With a few exceptions, food products rarely go directly from producer to end consumer, except in subsistence economies. Bulk shippers and wholesalers deliver unprocessed or semi-processed food to the people who pack and label it before bringing it to our supermarkets.
THE BRAND OWNERS
Key players for the label sector, the 10 biggest brand owners are reckoned to supply two thirds of the pre-packed food sold in the developed world.
The world’s leading brand according to retail statistics is Maggi. But of course Maggi is only one of Nestlé’s many brands, and Unilever, Nestlé and the other top processed food companies (see Figure 2.2 - Leading Brand Owners) can be said to feed the world.
They are by far the biggest users of labels and packaging.
Figure 2.2 Leading brand owners. Source- Cab Penhallow Consultancy
Distributors, or retailers, are where most people buy their groceries. World leader is Walmart, with around 12,000 outlets in 28 countries, over two million employees and sales just short of five hundred billion USD. In Europe, top retail groups are Carrefour and Tesco, both with sales of over 80 billion USD. For label converters it is important to note the rise in distributors’ own brand products (also known as house brands).
For these products the label converter’s customer is no longer the brand owner but the retailer. Both brand owners and major distributors wield enormous power over their label and packaging suppliers.
Some have been accused of using this power to squeeze prices and impose conditions for payment for special promotions and for (sometimes) punitive rebates.
These major customers for the label industry all say that they seek a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship with their label supplier. This is often, but not always, the case.
A QUESTION OF COLOR
Brand owners in particular require their label suppliers to match exactly their brand colors. Any deviation, however slight, can lead to a consignment of labels being rejected. Color conformity is difficult. Modern color management systems have taken a lot of the guesswork out of color matching, but slight differences in the substrate or the ambient temperature can still cause color deviations.
The problems are increased when two or more different print technologies are used, for example flexo and digital. A famous case concerns Coca Cola’s promotion with hundreds of different first names on the label.
WHERE DO BRAND OWNERS OPERATE?
The developed world is the main market for processed packaged foods. Consumption per head is highest in North America, followed by Japan and Western and Central Europe. Asian markets, and particularly China, are expanding fast, but from a very low base. India, which is home to 15 percent of the world’s population, has little in the way of modern distribution networks.
Buying patterns in India revolve around local stores, and laws to protect small shopkeepers prevent the growth of supermarkets. For Africa (outside major cities in a few countries like South Africa, Kenya and Ivory Coast) packaged fresh foods are hard to find.
Counterfeit food products are a major problem in the developing world. Even in developed countries consumers frequently buy by glancing at the brand name and the color, without looking for subtle differences (e.g. Hienz ketchup can pass for Heinz ketchup).
This is one of the reasons why brand owners are so concerned about color consistency. The problem is that most foods, unlike luxury baggage or silk scarves, have a low unit value. This rules out most forms of anti-counterfeit protection.
QR codes are sometimes used, but for low-value goods they are more marketing tools than guarantees against forgeries. Only high-value foods like foie gras, caviar or truffles can be economically protected by hard-to-copy features like holograms and intricately colored labels.
Tamper-evident closures are a different matter. They take many forms, but one of the most popular is the tamper-evident label or seal.
Figure 2.3 shows examples of tamper-evident protection. This reassures the law-abiding consumer and discourages the cheats who empty food packs and refill them with diluted or inferior product. In some cases, label films are heat-sealed to the container to form a coating which protects against tampering and helps to keep the product fresh.
Figure 2.3 Tamper-evident closures
Another technique (Figure 2.4) uses inks to detect differences between fake and genuine foods. Further information on beating the counterfeiter with overt and covert security technologies can be found here in an article about the 'battle against counterfeiters’.
Figure 2.4 Poor print quality can expose the counterfeit product
DEMOGRAPHICS AND CULTURES – NEW FOODS, NEW CHALLENGES MEAN MORE LABELS
Everyone knows that in developed countries the average age of the population is rising. What does that have to do with labeling? Answer, quite a lot, because older people buy smaller packs. The same is true for many single-person households. Smaller packs mean more labels.
In the European Union, with its 24 official languages, regulations require foods to be labeled in the language of the country or region in which they are to be sold. We see also the trend by brand owners to target specific segments of the population.
Targeting teenagers, millennials or religious minorities means more and shorter run lengths for the label converter. In Europe and in North America there are also many different variations of food products – ethnic (Indian, Chinese, Jewish, for example), low fat/healthy eating, gluten-free, low sugar, and many others.
All this leads to multiple label variations and shorter runs. This trend, particularly in Europe, gives rise to greater use of digital label printing for foods (see Figure 2.5).
Figure 2.5 Specialty short-run food labels, printed here on a Primera digital press
The trend of smaller packs is not limited to the developed world. For example, in India some packaged foods are often sold in single-use sachets to attract consumers with limited budgets.
Cultural factors also affect how a product’s label is presented. Cows are used on many labels in Europe and America; they would not be acceptable in India.
In China, where yoghurt is seen as both a gift and a health product, the top two fresh yoghurt brands with yoghurt drinks are proving increasingly popular as a way to aid both social advancement and digestion.
One constant feature, at least in the developed world, is the general rise in packaged, convenience foods. A report by analysts Smithers Pira in 2014 predicts a three percent annual rise for European packaged food and drink consumption to 953 billion packages by 2020. With this trend will come new demands on packaging and labeling for ready meals, prepared chilled foods and on-the-go snacks.
PRINT TECHNOLOGIES AND LABEL TYPES FOR FOOD LABELING
All conventional and digital print processes are used for food labels. For primary labels, which go on the product itself, the appearance of the label is very important. Many studies have shown that shoppers in supermarkets are attracted to the label first, before looking at the brand, the ingredients or the price. This means that the design, the colors and the shape of the label are vital to its success in selling the product.
A walk round any supermarket will show that, although self-adhesives dominate, all label types are used in food labeling. Figure 2.6 summarizes the main categories.
Figure 2.6 Principal decoration technologies. Source- Cab Penhallow Consultancy
Where the label is applied directly to a fruit or vegetable, food-grade inks and adhesives are essential as the risk of migration is high. For fresh meat the same applies, with the additional requirement that barcodes and text must remain legible as the label ensures traceability from the butcher’s shop back to the farmyard. Moisture-resistant adhesives are also needed as these goods are generally chilled, often for long periods.
Canned goods are for the most part low-value items (canned foie gras is among the exceptions), and they mostly have wet-glue or wraparound labels, or are direct-printed. Wet-glue is also used frequently for food products in glass jars (jams, preserves, spices etc.), but self-adhesives are increasingly used. A jar will usually have a prime label on the front and a second label (often in several languages) on the back, giving ingredients and legally required information. The top of the jar sometimes has a multi-layer leaflet labels, with suggestions for use, or with multiple languages.
Plastic bottles may be rigid or, more usually, squeezable, for example, bottles for ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard (see Figure 2.7). This surface presents a particular problem. To prevent the label from creasing or peeling, a self-adhesive labelstock with a conformable face material is needed.
Traditionally, conformable labels have been made from polyethylene. PE is sufficiently deformable to make excellent squeezable labels, but it has a tendency to become hazy with exposure to light or humidity. Recently, other squeezables have been developed; made from biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP). Polyolefins are also a popular facestock for squeezable labels. Occasionally, plastic bottles may be decorated using sleeve labels.
Figure 2.7 Squeezable containers are not easy to label
Rigid plastic containers for food products (yogurts are a typical example) are decorated using a wide variety of label types. Wraparounds, wet glue and self-adhesives can all be found. Many products of this type are chilled, and for these synthetic label materials are mainly used. High-volume products like dairy spreads will often be decorated with in-mold labeling (IML). IML was initially carried out by blow molding, and this technology still dominates in North America.
In Europe developments using injection molding or thermoforming with reel-fed systems have increased the speed and efficiency of the labeling process. The original concept involves coating the reverse side of the label with a heat seal layer, followed by a substrate material printed with heat resistant ink, and finally a heat resistant varnish coating. IML labels are most often made of polypropylene. After being printed they are often cut and stacked ready to be applied, though roll-to-roll application is proving popular. Historically, IML has only been cost effective for large volumes, but modern print and application technology has reduced the volume threshold.
Consultancy group AWA reckons that by 2017, world consumption of IMLs will top one billion sqm, more than half of it in Europe. The main use of IML is for packing products like butter, margarine, ice creams or edible fats. It is also extensively used for labeling motor oils and detergents. IML packaging has the advantage of being easy to recycle.
Artificial tubular casings are not strictly labels, but are frequently printed and converted on conventional label presses with flexo, letterpress or combined printing. They are used particularly in central and eastern Europe (see Figure 2.8). Applications include smoked fish, pet foods, and of course a huge range of sausages. Casings, which are sometimes printed on both sides, are printed flat, although the web is actually an extruded tube without a join. After printing, the tubular casing is filled under pressure and sterilized at high temperature in an autoclave. The inks used must withstand sterilizing, as well as rough handling during transport and retailing.
Figure 2.8 Tubular casings. Source- KPG
Labeling frozen foods must obviously be done with materials which can withstand temperatures below -20C without falling off or becoming wrinkled. An added problem for the label converter is that some products may be labeled when hot, others only when deep-frozen. Adhesives and label materials must be adapted to whichever processing sequences are used.
In terms of numbers (though not of value) price-weigh labels are possibly the most universal food product label after prime labels. These labels are generally direct-thermally printed. Traditionally, the substrate used for price-weigh labels has contained bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical exhibits estrogen mimicking, hormone-like properties that raise concern about its suitability for contact with foods. Both the American FDA and the European Food Safety Authority have expressed concern and have banned the use of BPA in certain products, for example, bottles for babies. In February 2016, France announced that it intended to propose BPA as a ’Substance of Very High Concern’ under REACH regulations.
APPLICATION OF FOOD LABELS
Applicators for wet-glue labels are used for certain high-volume labeling processes. The equipment is expensive and very often, when it wears out, it is replaced by self-adhesive labelers. These vary from small, semi-manual dispensers to high-speed fully automatic lines able to handle 1,000 products each minute.
For Europe, regulation (EC) No 1935/20041 requires that materials and articles which, in their finished state, are intended to be brought into contact with foodstuffs, must not transfer any components to the packed foodstuff in quantities which could endanger human health, or bring about an unacceptable change in the composition or deterioration in organoleptic properties. Over and above these legal requirements there is a groundswell of opinion, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia, that packaging of all kinds is ethically dubious and ecologically hazardous. It is therefore particularly important for the label industry as a whole to develop and promote ‘safe’ food labels which can be easily recycled.
The risk that chemicals may leach through labels and packaging is real. The risk that this might harm people’s health is mostly imaginary. The fear arises through most people’s ignorance of what chemicals there are in ink, and these fears are fanned by the popular press which loves to blame manufacturers for real or imagined contamination. As a result, label converters are turning preemptively to more expensive low-migration inks.
What is needed to ensure low or zero migration of ink into a food product? The answer is more complicated than the question, because it depends not only on the ink, but also on the substrate, the drying/curing process and even the shelf life of the food in question.
Some ink manufacturers are promoting UV LED inks not only for the energy economy but also because this drying technology can be better controlled than traditional mercury lamp drying. Most ink manufacturers now guarantee their low migration label inks, but these guarantees are hedged with exceptions like ‘when correctly used’. Label converters should dialog with their ink suppliers to find the right compromise between security and cost.
In 2015, Aldi, a major discount retailer based in Germany, sent a circular to all its label and packaging suppliers about the risk of contamination through mineral oils. This letter included the following warning: ‘Aldi Süd's goal is that in the house brands of its food sector, mineral oil components can no longer be found in foods. For this reason, we are asking you to take measures to ensure compliance with this requirement’.
Aldi’s defensive stance is not unconnected to the Great Advent Calendar Controversy; an environmental group claimed that the paper used for advent calendars contained recycled fibers contaminated with ink residues. In fact, the residues were only measurable in two of the twenty or more makes of calendar, but the damage was done. The German Association for Food Regulation came back with the argument that ‘traces of mineral oil are impossible to avoid in many raw materials due to the processes used, can easily result in wrong conclusions and unjustified reactions’. For label converters there is less risk. Paper face materials are mostly made from virgin fibers, and synthetic substrates have (so far) been less often accused, and are available in ‘high barrier’ options from several producers. UPM Raflatac, for example, has developed multi-purpose top-coated films designed for labeling applications on rigid packaging where good water, chemical, and oil resistance is required. It also offers a range of ultra-thin face materials making it possible to create innovative and intricate food label designs on rigid plastic and glass.
Adhesives used for self-adhesive labels can also be a potential source of migration and contamination, particularly when these labels are applied directly to foodstuffs. The two most commonly used adhesives for pressure-sensitive labels are hotmelt and acrylic emulsion. Nearly all adhesives stick because they contain resins, and the lower the resin content, the lower the initial tack. This problem is even more acute with filmic labels. However recent developments using a multi-layer adhesive technology have resulted in a virtually resin-free adhesive, which can be used for filmic food labels as well as for moist or fatty surfaces.
ADVANCED LABEL DESIGNS AND TECHNOLOGIES IN THE FOOD SECTOR
Advanced technology applications for food labeling include extending the shelf life of packaged foods. This reduces food waste, and is mainly done by using sealed containers with nitrogen gas flush or partial vacuum.
Labels come into play when in direct contact with the product (for some foods the label is used to cover completely and seal a rigid plastic container). The use of moisture, oxygen, ethylene, and CO2 sachet-type absorbers are all being used in combination with labels to extend shelf life.
Recent experiments have also involved the use of zinc oxide nanoparticles, which have an antimicrobial effect.
Time-temperature indicators are not new, although accurate and reliable ones are too expensive to be used on the majority of packed foods. A more effective way to ensure the freshness of foods is to control the chill or cold chain. This however can be done more effectively by temperature indicators placed on pallets rather than on individual products.
The future may be another country, but one thing is as certain as anything can be: the rapid growth of pre-packaged/labeled foods, particularly in emerging countries, means that food labels will continue to be a vital end-user sector for the majority of label converters world-wide.
POINTS TO REMEMBER FOR FOOD LABELS
About one third of all self-adhesive labels are for food
Strict regulations and laws govern the position, size and content of food labels
The label is an essential selling tool
Migration of substances from the label into the product has become a major public health issue
A small number of brand owners and retailers dominate the market for packaged foods
Innovative labels are being used to enhance products or prolong their shelf life.
‘In the United States, frozen cheese pizza is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Frozen pepperoni pizza, on the other hand, is regulated by the Department of Agriculture. Each sets its own standards with regard to content, labeling and so on, and its own set of regulations which require licenses, compliance certificates and all kinds of other costly paperwork. This kind of madness would not be possible in a small country like Britain. You need the European Union for that’