As we all know, producing safe food is job number one in the food manufacturing industry. Food safety is critical to not only protect your customers, but also to gain trust from your customers and potential customers. This plays a major role in business survival, as your brand, and what people perceive it to be, is the economic driver and is among one of the most important assets you have.
This is where packaging comes into play, as its main purpose is to protect the food from a safety and quality standpoint, while also serving as a method for transportation and marketing. But the main area of concern within the food industry is how the packaging keeps the food inside safe for consumption.
A Little Food Packaging History
The legislation that came about which determines where the food and beverage industry gets its testing procedures from was with the passage of the Food Additives Amendment in 1958, which resulted in a new Section of 201(s) of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 to define the term “food additive.”
A food additive is: “Any substance the intended use of which results in or may be reasonably expected to result … in its becoming a component of food.” Additionally, "Any substances which then become part of a food by being transferred from the packaging are considered “indirect food additives.”
The definition specifically excludes substances that are:
- Not reasonably expected to become a “component” of food
- Generally recognized as safe (GRAS) among experts qualified by scientific training and experience to evaluate their safety
- Prior sanctioned
This meant that now there was another list of items that needed to be tested, audited, and controlled in the process of guaranteeing food safety.
What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to food packaging?
Understanding where it came from. Within your own prerequisite programs and supplier programs, you’ll know exactly where and who you’re purchasing raw materials from. This should also be the same course of action you take when dealing with your packaging suppliers. Do you know the country of origin? Do you know where it has been stored? Can you trace the sources of packaging, and also trace those materials that make up the packaging?
You have to know if the suppliers of packaging have good tractability, but you also need to go back and look at components of packaging and know if those potentially came from risky locations.
One of the biggest challenges comes with having to build a complex web of items that have to be tracked. The difficult part about this web is determining the intended use of the packages and how those intended uses interact with the ingredients.
Packaging material is as much a part of the value chain as the ingredients are that make up a finished product itself. So unless it’s something that has a natural package, like a banana, the packaging that the finished product is in plays a key role in overall food safety.
There’s a wide range of materials that have both different physical and chemical properties used in packaging. The basic materials used include:
- Fiber (cloth)
- Recycled Materials (these become an even greater challenge when it comes to tractability)
Additionally, all process in some way, shape, or form affect the packaging that will be used on your finished product or the packaging that carries your raw ingredients. These processes can include:
- Chemical sterilization
Specifications, as we know, are required for all components of a food process, which includes packaging. And with each one of the items listed above, the types of specifications can be broad. For example, you can have laminate film with certain specifications that would look nothing like the specifications used with fiber boards in baking. The specifications themselves should contain:
- Information as it relates to microbiological safety
- Information to describe the “product” – standard identity
- Chemical makeup
- Physical properties
And all the specifications should be built to measure:
- The quality
- The safety
- The performance
Packaging Safety Considerations
Here are some questions you should be asking when it comes to the safety of your packaging:
- What type of food is going to be packaged?
- You wouldn’t use the same type of packaging for a dry product, versus a product that has high fat content
- What type of protection do you want to provide?
- Do you need to have opaque packaging or can it be clear?
- What is the design of the product?
- When you look at the final performance characteristics for the packaging, you have to take into consideration shelf-life and other issues of concern. Packaging plays a key role in making sure the product performs at the consumer level the way it’s supposed to.
- How will the product be handled?
- What is the intended distribution chain for the product?
- Consider the storage conditions and where it will be traveling
As mentioned above, packaging has an effect on the product, and one format does not fit all. It’s imperative to consider physical and chemical interactions of ingredients with existing packaging materials. The packaging must function as a barrier to microbiological, chemical, and physical contaminants that would degrade product quality and safety.
Packaging Validation and Verification
This is the area where people have the most questions because of the variety of packing types available. This is, however, a crucial part to a comprehensive food safety program. Verification is imperative if you’re going to assess the chemical contaminant risks, microbiological product effects, and physical defects. There’s economic drivers for verification, but most importantly, there are safety and quality drivers that need to be met.
Analysis parameters include physical, chemical, and biological techniques. All analysis techniques and combinations are fair game to measure these parameters and characterize a product.
Physical items that are normally measured include:
- Moisture barrier
- Vapor barrier
- Light protection
- Chemical protection
- Quality and safety parameters needed to ensure the packaging performs as it should
Microbiological items that are typically measured include:
- Cleanliness of packaging (sometimes it can cause molds in products like yogurts)
- Post production contamination
- Storage conditions for packaging
- Air and airflow
- Safety and quality of the packaging materials used
Chemical items that are typically measured include (this is where you find the most information about the packaging materials itself):
- Migration studies
- Focus on transfer of chemicals to product
- Focus on transfer of chemicals through packaging
- Also consider product types in combination with packaging
- Toxicity testing (what are the limits on certain chemical intakes)
Food contact packaging performance must be designed to meet all the parameters of the product itself and should be done in conjunction with development, marketing, QA, food safety, and distribution to ensure the packaging is designed for the intended use of the product.
FDA provides excellent guidance on things that are needed for food contact packaging.
Packaging is a crucial element for your food safety system. Everything is put inside something, and should be treated like other food production materials. It will always be a challenge to understand the full composition of packaging materials and the various interactions with food materials, but as mentioned above, food safety is job number one.
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