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Q & A: The Future Of Food Packaging

A Thomson Reuters report explores innovation in the food and beverage packaging sectors.

A Thomson Reuters report, Convenience vs. Conscience – Food Packaging in the 21st Century, explores innovation in the food and beverage packaging sectors. Food Manufacturing spoke with Susan E. Cullen of Thomson Reuters about the report and the latest packaging trends.

Q: What are some of the recent innovations made in the food packaging industry?

A: Recent innovations in the food packaging industry, as showcased in the report, revolve around making packaging more convenient for consumers and making it more environmentally friendly. In fact, a Thomson Reuters sponsored survey of 1,011 adults showed that men tend to prefer convenience and women earth-friendliness when making packaging decisions, thereby enforcing the direction in which innovation is headed.

Food packaging inventions involve things such as barrier films, modified atmosphere packaging, the use of nanocomposites, antimicrobials and aseptic containers.

In recent years we have seen a large amount of patents and trademarks in the food packaging industry. In our report we compiled information on 14,000 invention patents and 10,000 trademarks that were made between 2004 and 2009. We found many food packaging inventions seek to avoid food waste, improve food safety and reduce materials required for packaging, all of which play into the methods for reducing a carbon footprint. Trademarks using terms such as “eco” or “enviro” or “clean” have also seen an upward trend as more companies inform consumers of the packaging benefits they claim.

Convenience packaging is also playing a central role within the industry. Significant recent innovations include single serve packs which, in addition to being convenient, also reduce waste and manage portion control; re-closure technologies allowing convenience for customers and; microwavable food and packaging to meet the needs of time-constrained consumers.

Other innovations beyond the “green” theme include tamper-evident packaging and interactive packages that use Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) to track food from source to destination.

Q: The environmental and sustainability movements have become popular in food packaging, but there are few guidelines governing such labeling. What should manufacturers consider before placing environmental claims on their packaging?

A: The lack of standardization within the food packaging industry on what constitutes an environmentally-friendly package has resulted in ambiguity as to which packages truly are “green.”  There are many labels which state a package is “green,” but not much guidance on the criteria that must be met to make the claim. 

Manufacturers can do a few things in the absence of such guidance. First, we recommend that they work with the governing bodies focused on developing standards to help define what they should be. Without a seat at this table, they will be subject to the outcome of those discussions and won’t have a voice in the decision making.

Until clear standards are set, manufacturers can self-describe the environmental friendliness of their packaging. Including a comment such as “Made of 35% recycled material and using a solar energy source” is one example of this. Some companies are already starting to do this.

Finally, they can begin – or expand – their own self-evaluation process to see just how environmentally friendly they are, and where they might become even more so. This is not something that will happen overnight; it is an ongoing effort that should continually be done to refine and improve their green rating.

The good news is the lack of “green” standards within the food packaging industry will likely receive more attention in the coming months. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the European Organization for Packaging the Environment are currently working on standards.

Q: How have food safety concerns changed the way companies’ package food products?

A: One of the most pressing issues facing the food packaging industry today is safety. Unfortunate instances of food tampering in the past and media hype over terrorist tactics and targets are just some of the factors that have caused food manufacturers to become increasingly clever in the ways they package their goods.

A few decades ago, it was commonplace to find items such as mayonnaise or peanut butter on the store shelf without protective plastic wrap around the jar’s lid or foil over the inside of the container. Today manufacturers are aware that omitting such protective barriers would be foolish and likely detrimental to their sales.

Food safety is necessary to make certain that what we eat reaches our table in an edible state and that it hasn’t been tampered with during transit. To guarantee this, companies have made strides in barrier plastic films that, coupled with processing and packaging, extend shelf life of products that have a long transit time from farm or factory to market. 

In particular, barrier films which control exposure of the contents to moisture or oxidation in items such as produce have seen an increase in patent filings and citations.  Other key food safety innovations include modified atmosphere containers to minimize spoilage, use of antimicrobials, tamper evident packaging, ultra-high pressure packaging, sensors for maintaining the cold chain and aseptic containers, a form of packaging that keeps products shelf-stable without refrigeration.

Q: According to the report, what aspects of product packaging drive consumer purchasing decisions?

A: There are various aspects of food and beverage packaging that drive consumer purchase decisions. Some of these include:

  • The earth-friendliness of the package (women will select eco-friendly packages 14% more than men according to the Thomson Reuters sponsored survey)
  • How convenient the packaging is – meaning, does it allow the purchaser to go from shelf to tabletop with little additional work? Is it microwavable? Etc. (men prefer convenient packages over green ones 10% more than women according to that same survey)
  • The shelf life of the product – does the packaging help the product have a longer shelf life? Does it incorporate newer techniques for helping produce to stay fresh longer?

Q: When it comes to choosing product packaging, what considerations are most important for manufacturers?
A: There are several:

  • Does the design of the product support the company’s brand?
  • What are the opportunity costs of going green or of not going green?
  • How can convenience and conscience be packaged in one?
  • What do your customers tell you they want and need?

These considerations touch various departments within a company and span different aspects of marketing and branding.

On that note, the brand point is an important one. A recent notable example of litigation illustrates this, as Kraft Foods sued Interamerica Foods Corporation for their sale of chocolate chip cookies whose packaging allegedly infringes the packaging of Chips Ahoy! cookies. The allegedly infringing package is said to use “virtually the same blue color” as the Chips Ahoy! package and to reproduce many of the design features of the Kraft (Nabisco) product.

Q: What do you see in the future for food packaging?

A: The industry is headed in the direction of providing both convenient packaging and conscientious protection of the environment, satisfying both needs rather than making it an either/or decision. In addition, the “green” labeling loophole will become smaller as standards are developed by institutions such as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment. Consumers will have a better way to judge food packaging and make choices that drive industry change more extensively.