The efficiency and profitability of the multiple food supply chain is increasingly dependent upon close cooperation between retailers, food manufacturers, packaging technologists, distributors, packaging converters and other support services. One of the main drivers of change that makes it imperative that business run as efficiently as possible and deliver their best is that consumer expectations have changed.
Consumers want a choice of products, at the right price; they want convenience; they want easy to open/easy to close packaging. They want food items attractively presented in packaging that safely protects a food item from the deteriorating effects of heat, light, gases; presence or absence of moisture; from harmful microorganisms; they want to buy products packed in containers, pouches and cartons that have not been tampered with. They want the fruit and the speciality vegetables that they purchase to be fresh and blemish-free. Traceability, information on the origin of a product is important. Increasingly they are looking for packaging that is viewed as having positive environmental credentials. Consumers also expect a lot from the service superstore, they want to be able to visit the store and purchase the product of choice at any time. They don’t expect to find empty shelf space; they are not interested in stock control problems or manufacturing hold up excuses.
Retailers in essence are still dependent upon the need to bring products in the door and onto the shelf and off of the shelf and into the shoppers’ trolley as quickly as possible. Investment in information technology ensures that stock moves to stores on a just in time basis and that products are either and ideally sold before expiry date or are removed from shelves and disposed of by expiry date. But that is by no means the end of the story.
Retailing practices are becoming increasingly sophisticated they are looking more closely at packaging that not only contains, protects and attracts but also serves as a diagnostic tool. Consumers and retailers alike want on pack freshness indicators; intelligent and smart technologies that reduce product wastage by slowing down, for example in packaged fresh fruit and vegetable goods the endogenous and natural processes associated with senescence.
Film manufacturers and packaging technologist are involved along with other supply chain providers in configuring packaging structures for fruit and vegetable items that have different permeability requirements. Modified atmosphere packaging is regarded as suitable for some applications, for others edible coating may be applied. Options abound. When fruit is packed in cartons, they are sometimes lined with micro-perforated plastic liners that help maintain humidity and keep moisture in so that fruit is maintained at optimum condition until its displayed.
Packaging fresh fruit is one of the most important steps in the lengthy and often complex journey from harvesting to retailer to consumer. Time is of the essence as the clock begins ticking in terms of deterioration almost immediately. In general bulk packaging or containers are used by processors for the wholesale markets while small more marketable plastic tubs or conformable plastic packs often incorporating colourful designs and graphics are employed for the packing of soft fruits; for other items such as apples and oranges the pack needs to be sturdy. The container must enclose the produce and often the produce is sited in individual cells or units of compressed paper so that the item fits snugly and does not move around and become bruised.
Fruit and vegetables are packed using a variety of substrates according to size and shape of the fruit or vegetable and its susceptibility to damage. Products may be packed in thermoformed/clamshell packs; corrugated fibreboard, semi rigid plastic containers and mesh, plastic or paper sacks. The media, consumer and political/environmental backlash against plastics is encouraging packaging technologists, consumable providers and retailers to seek alternative materials. This of course is not confined to fruit and vegetable products but affects many other product sectors as well. Bio based alternative materials, cellulose and starch, etc., are up for consideration.
Active, intelligent or smart packaging; systems that sense or manipulate changes in the packaging environment; systems that prevent microorganism or pathogens; barrier technologies that may consist of absorbers and scavengers are currently the subject of much development. In the limelight of course is the desire to move, where possible and realistic to using substrates and consumables that meet environmental and sustainability requirements. Although all of these garner attention, retailers and brand professionals are not going to forget the role packaging plays as a communicator.
Packaging is critical – it drives sales; enabling the marketer to put a face to a product. It provides an item with personality. When the item’s personality clicks with the consumer it can leave a lasting impression making it easier for a brand owner to carry that identity over to any line extension, change of packaging medium or new product launches. For seasonal fruit and vegetables products that only appear on the retail shelf for a period of a few weeks a year such as asparagus its essential that the product is packed in a clear filmic material or flexible bag that provides high visibility so that the consumer can assess quality prior to purchase. An on pack colourful PS-label, which may include a flag displaying country of origin, harvesting information and nutritional content helps to shift products quickly and reduces retail throwaway.
Packaging has many masters and is looked at in different ways according to the varying priorities of the viewer. In the not so distant past labels needed nothing more than a stab at design, perhaps a classy font and perhaps a token colour. Not so now.
Labels help to emphasize brand identity; they may have an imbedded track and trace device; they incorporate relevant information and sometimes they serve as a tamper evident seal. Labels are subject to more in the way of exotic print finishing technologies and may be printed using flexography, offset, gravure, digital, or increasingly a combination thereof and on a variety of substrates such as PS-papers, plastic films, foils and laminates. Labels have long since ceased to be taken for granted. Rotary silkscreen or UV flexo provides added luxury to clear PS- labels. It’s a great way to achieve maximum opacity while adding texture and colour to products such as packed fresh soft fruit. Labelling for information and sealing purposes is the favoured choice for products such as strawberries packed in plastic soft top punnets.
Whether its labels, cartons, pouches, pre-printed liners for corrugated containers and fibreboard, the need to comply with retailing stock management requirements has meant that test, quality control and product development systems have assumed greater importance. Missed deadlines because of ink related issues jeopardises a supplier’s relationship with the retailer. Interpreting colour and getting it right time after time remains a challenge for the printer. For in our increasingly sophisticated world of brand packaging its more than just colour, its also about the subtleties associated with tone and depth. So many processing variables can influence colour; even paper brightness, surface quality and neutrality or deviance from colour cast, all have an effect on colour appearance.
Colour communication devices enable users of many descriptions to meet colour targets accurately, quickly and with minimal waste. One such device is the K303 Multicoater designed and developed by RK Print Coat Instruments. Easily and conveniently sited on any bench top this unit is available with interchangeable gravure, flexo and meter bar coating heads.
As a standard gravure proofer, its often used in laboratories for quality control purposes on all ink/substrate combinations. It uses include colour comparison and determining printability and gloss and adhesion.
When configured for flexo the K303 utilises doctored anilox flexo plates from which the ink is transferred via the stereo roller onto the substrate. The flexo head can be used to produce gravure-offset proofs, while the addition of a meter bar coating head makes for a very useful and well-rounded quality control system. The film
applicator supplied can be used for all types of paper coatings, liquid printing inks, varnishes, adhesives and other surface coatings. Bars are also available for wet coatings from 4 to 500 microns.
Other colour communication devices include the FlexiProof for users and producers of flexo inks. The family is comprised of the original pre-press award winning FlexiProof 100 and variants FlexiProof UV and FlexiProof LED UV.
The need to trial unfamiliar materials or to determine the most suitable and economic print, coat or laminating technology has resulted in RK Print introducing the VCML Lab/Pilot Coater.
This system enables operators to print, coat and laminate on all types of flexible substrates and on a reel to reel basis. It has the ability to apply various inks, varnishes, adhesives and paint using environmentally acceptable formulations and where necessary solvent-based materials as well. The VCML-Lab/Pilot Coater also offers short run production capability, making it ideal for speedily bringing products to market; for monitoring quality and for undertaking many types of tests and procedures.
Touch screen controlled and with a web width of up to 300mm the system is equipped with a cantilevered unwind and rewind, head mounting station with tray lift and trough and a laminator station with pneumatic nip.
Flexography, offset gravure and gravure, knife over roll, reverse coating, meter bar, slot die and many other processing options can be made available. The VCML Lab/Pilot Coater can be configured for hot air drying, infrared, UV curing and for corona treatment. Edge guide and heated laminator and ATEX coating zone can also be integrated in with the system.