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Q&A: Food Packaging Innovations

Tue, 02/28/2012 - 11:00am
Terry Woolford, General Manager, Eagle Product Inspection

Food Manufacturing spoke with Terry Woolford of Eagle Product Inspection about the latest food packaging developments from last year, as well as what innovations to expect throughout the rest of 2012.

Q: What food packaging innovations were uncovered in 2011?

A: The packaging industry is in constant change, driven by technological innovations and consumer demands. Overall, some of the main innovations in 2011 regarded the development of new formats such as flexible packaging, pouches with safer reclosable packets and more portable containers. Also, innovative packaging materials such as metalized film increased in 2011.

Another increasing trend in the packaging industry is the concern for environmentally friendly packaging solutions, such as glass. Sustainable packaging options increasingly use recyclable materials that exclude potentially toxic components and allow food manufacturers to better allocate their resources, such as their raw materials, energy and water use.

Q: How does packaging impact the safety level of a food product?

A: Packaging — with its wide range of options, sizes, densities and materials — has a direct impact on food safety. For example, multi-textured foods that have many density levels within the pack, like mixed-salad bags, make inspection for contaminants more complex. Products such as these require clearer- and easier-to-inspect packaging formats, given that they yield crowded x-ray images when being inspected by x-ray machines.

Innovative packaging designs lead to their own challenges, as machines previously calibrated to scan standard types of packaging have to adapt to be able to accurately analyze new shapes, sizes and materials, such as flexible packaging and pouches. To manage the increased desire for innovative products and packaging, extra demands are being made on image analysis software to find contaminants. One solution is Material Discrimination X-ray (MDX) technology, which discriminates materials by their chemical composition, to overcome crammed images. Additionally, MDX also allows detection of contaminants in increasingly popular packaging designs such as fold-out cardboard sandwich packaging and corrugated card encasements that can hinder traditional inspection tools.

Q: What should food manufacturers consider when choosing a package for their product?

A: Food manufacturers should focus on a number of packaging characteristics when trying to choose the most suitable encasing option for their products: recyclability and impact on the environment, cost-effectiveness, nature of the product, practical but eye-catching design, and, most importantly, safety. Additionally, products that have to be transported over long distances, such as exotic fruits and vegetables, need specific types of packaging to ensure their freshness and prolong their shelf life. The ideal format of the package should contain, protect and allow for easy identification of the produce, satisfying the needs of everyone, from the manufacturer to the retailer and end consumer.

Q: How will the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) affect what packaging is used for food products?

A: The FSMA increases the demand for more accurate and stringent product inspection on the manufacturer’s production line. With this in mind, manufacturers may be concerned that this restricts the type of packaging they can use, as traditional product inspection systems are not sensitive enough to detect contaminants in newer forms of packaging such as fold out cardboard packages, corrugated card or foil pouches. However, recent advancements in x-ray inspection technology mean that, despite these increasingly stringent regulations, it is still possible to employ innovative types of packaging without compromising food safety.

MDX technology is one way manufacturers can meet the regulations of the FSMA without compromising on the type of packaging they use. MDX technology is able to discriminate materials by their chemical composition and allows the detection and rejection of historically undetectable inorganic contaminants such as glass shards, rocks, rubber and plastic. MDX enables manufacturers to continue to use different shapes, sizes and types of packaging while still adhering to the standards set by the FSMA.

Q: What major food safety trends do you see in 2012 for the packaging industry?

A: The latest regulations and new food safety guidelines are currently shaping the landscape of packaging and inspection techniques. Manufacturers might have to revise and adapt their production lines and choice of packaging in order to comply with the strictest standards.

Nevertheless, an increasing consumer demand regarding safety is BPA-free packaging of baby food, bottles and cans, as research by the FDA about its effects on health continue. BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used to make plastics since the 1960s and is commonly used in the lining of cans and other packages. Thus, manufacturers might increasingly focus on the development of BPA-free containers to increase food safety.

Moreover, manufacturers still need to weigh in on many other factors apart from safety, such as recyclability, when trying to choose the best packaging options for their needs. For example, glass packaging is becoming more prevalent as sustainability continues to rise in importance, driven by an increasing awareness of the impact packaged goods have on the environment.

In direct response to the evolution of packaging formats and materials, product inspection technologies have further developed. For example, the bottom of upright containers such as glass jars, bottles and composite lines used to be blind spots for inspection machinery, which decreased their levels of protection. Fortunately, thanks to innovations such as quad-view detection which enables full product inspection detecting glass-in-glass contaminants, glass packaging is now a safer and more viable option for many sectors, such as the dairy and baby food industries.

As General Manager at Eagle Product Inspection (Formerly Smiths Detection PID), Terry is responsible for driving forward equipment sales leadership and development, through both direct and indirect channels to customers ranging from owner operators to key accounts. He holds an MBA in Business Administration, Entrepreneurial and Transformational Leadership from the University of Liverpool as well as a BTEC ONC/HNC in Electrical and Electronic Engineering  from Whitwood Technical College.

With its headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and local offices across the globe, Eagle Product Inspection machines meet today’s HACCP certification requirements to ensure that food and beverage manufacturers and their customers in turn are well protected.

Interview by Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor

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