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Horses for courses

By John Penhallow, Contributing Editor | March 13, 2013

Several years ago, a number of cases of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “Mad Cow Disease” were diagnosed in England and several other European countries. Beef sales nosedived, and there was an export ban covering all countries where the disease was prevalent. Sooner or later (probably sooner) the sleuths from the French food safety authority found that British beef was being shipped into France illegally, by unscrupulous dealers no doubt muttering, “dead cows tell no tales.”  The resulting uproar in France (where many people do not see eye to eye with the English), was only calmed by experts from the label industry shouting “We have the answer – it’s called traceability.”  From the farmyard to your plate, they said, labels will ensure there will never again be any skullduggery in anybody’s meat supplies.

And so it is that a roast of beef (or any other meat) can today be traced back from the butcher’s shop via the abattoir to the animal on the hoof. All thanks to ingenious labels!

So it is – or rather was until February of this year when it was suddenly revealed that Europe’s second biggest processed food supplier had been selling “beef” products - hamburgers, lasagna, and ravioli, to name but a few - all made from Rumanian horsemeat. Worse, all the major supermarkets in Western Europe had been selling own-brand products similarly labeled “pure beef” when, on investigation, it wasn’t. The Rumanians were quick to protest their innocence: they sold good old-fashioned horsemeat, they said, correctly labeled and certified, to a Cypriot trader who supplied a Dutch intermediary who shipped it to a French food processer. Here, it seems, the plot thickens. It looks as if somebody replaced the labels with ones saying pure beef, before selling the product on to packing plants in France and other countries. The English, (who don’t always see eye to eye with the French), were quick to indulge in a little Schadenfreude, denouncing their Gallic neighbors as perfidious horse-dealers.  Again, the label experts of Europe are being called on to devise an even more foolproof system of track-and-trace to ensure that such a scandal can never, never happen again.

There seem to be several morals to this story. Firstly, the fraudsters are too often a jump ahead of the security label designers. Secondly, too many businessmen will turn a blind eye when there’s a fast euro to be made. And thirdly, that your correspondent is apparently one of the very few people around who can taste the difference between beef and horse.

Even better traceability
Traceability is what Arjo Wiggins Security is all about. This French-owned group has recently developed an authentication technology, which it modestly describes as “Impossible to counterfeit, mimic or forge.” And before you say “Oh yeah?” you should know that this method involves microfilming a tiny area of any label or pack and digitizing the resulting photo, which is then converted into a unique bar code or datamatrix. Using (relatively) inexpensive PC-enabled equipment, a distributor, end-user or customs officer can both authenticate and track the product anywhere in the world. According to Brand Protection Director Herlé Carn, Arjo Wiggins is targeting sensitive products like pharmaceuticals, and also high-security applications like ID documents. It is not likely that this solution will be used to pin down iffy hamburgers.

These are hard times for paper mills, and Cham Paper in Switzerland is no exception. In 2012 the group “transformed its production capacities” (i.e. closed several mills), and abandoned the production of liner for PS labels. Cham has now announced a know-how agreement with Austria’s Brigl und Bergmeister (B&B), who will shortly start manufacturing liner at their plant near Vienna. This plant already produces wet-strength label papers and there are plans to expand its capacity next year. B&B’s other plant, in Slovenia, will have new capacity coming on stream in September of this year, which will “make possible the development of new products in the label paper and flexible packaging range thanks to an improved pre-coating process” according to B&B’s marketing spokesperson Sabine Horwath.

Heidelberg on course for a full recovery
When it comes to gauging the health of the European print and packaging sector, Heidelberg is perhaps not the only bellwether in the flock, but with nearly 15,000 employees it certainly carries the biggest bell. Manufacturer of the Speedmaster, which is probably the world’s best-selling print/converting line for sheet labels, Heidelberg now also owns CSAT, a manufacturer of digital inkjet label presses. The company’s fourth quarter 2012 results, just published, show a 9% increase in year-on-year sales, with a quarterly pre-tax profit of EUR five million compared with a loss of EUR 25 million in the same period of 2011.  To achieve this turnaround, Heidelberg has taken a leaf out of German Chancellor Merkel’s book (or maybe it’s the other way round). Ruthless cost-cutting, debt reduction and a modest cull of the labor force have been the watchwords of Heidelberg’s new CEO Gerold Linzbach: “The latest quarterly results are in line with our expectations,” he says, “By the end of the next fiscal year our aim is to be back in profits, and so far we are on track to achieve this.”

New ideas at Pharmapack
The French are Europe’s champion pill-takers; worldwide, only the Americans can beat them. It is not surprising therefore that the Pharmapack show, held in Paris in February of this year, attracted a record attendance.  For the pharmaceutical sector, even more than for food, counterfeiting is a major problem, and one which can affect the health of millions. Of the 30 label converters present at the show, several were also producers of packaging and leaflets. This seems to be the trend in Europe, with the main converters like August Faller stressing that they offer a one-stop-shop. “For packers and labs one-stop-shopping avoids the risk of one supplier blaming another if anything goes wrong,” says Charis Kränzke of Faller. Also exhibiting at Pharmapack was Autajon, a French package printer who has in recent years adopted the same policy, acquiring the Bopack group of label converters. Faller finds the French market for pharmaceutical packaging “very nationalistic” – further proof that despite nearly half a century of the Single Internal Market, Europe’s frontiers are still a factor to be reckoned with.

Sleeve labels were also much in evidence at Pharmapack: Market leader Sleever International was showing UV-resistant sleeves for protecting light-sensitive liquids, and Belgium-based Reynders presented a tamper-evident sleeve combined with a multi-page label. Label converter Faubel used the show to demonstrate how the label on a blister pack can make the package difficult for a child to open yet still easy for an elderly person. Amazing. The man on the booth who demonstrated this miracle to your correspondent seemed to have some difficulty, but no doubt he was just new to the job. Faubel also specializes in booklet labels of up to 120 pages, and multi-purpose labels for clinical trials. Other label converters at the show included France’s Stratus Packaging, which has just embarked on a EUR 10 million investment program, and APE Etiquettes, whose colorful CEO has recently given up judo and taken to car rally racing, taking part in the ‘Dakar’ which in January this year took him and his co-pilot on a five thousand mile race from Lima to Santiago.

Schreiner Group’s Medipharm division has a reputation for innovation: their latest product, as shown at Pharmapack, is a set of three labels for autoinjectors. People who need to inject themselves regularly have special needs which are different from those of health professionals. Schreiner’s solution comprises covert and overt security features, a tamper-evident strip, a temperature indicator (some substances must be injected only at room temperature), and an anti-slip feature to make it easier to hold the injector steady. None of these features is revolutionary, but put together they optimize safety and convenience for the patient. But surely such labels must be printed in very short runs, your correspondent suggested when he visited the booth. Schreiner’s Product Manager Michael Crumbiegel begs to differ. “The autoinjector is used only once, and some patients need injections several times per day. Run lengths of several hundred thousand are by no means unusual.”

Gidue was, or perhaps we should say is, an Italian label press manufacturer which suffered a near-death experience several years back when it went into receivership.  By gathering up a few remnants of the company’s human and material assets, CEO Federico d’Annunzio was able to set up Nuova Gidue. Starting on a wing and a prayer, the company began slowly to regain customer confidence. Today Nuova Gidue exhibits in China, and has just set up a sales office in US. Its presses have been installed in many countries including Russia, Hungary and UK. Mike Cheetham, CEO of UK’s Chesapeake Labels,  goes on record as saying “The capabilities of this press will help to extend the range of labels we produce, particularly complex designs requiring a high number of colors, 3 or even 5 ply formats as well as using multiple substrates for the same label. We also appreciate the many quality control features on this press.”

Xeikon – the ‘We Try Harder’ of digital narrow web printing
Although not the market leader in narrow web digital presses, Xeikon has been finding plenty of willing customers of late. The case of CS Labels in the UK is illuminating. This converter has now thrown out all its flexo presses and prints 90% of its output on Xeikon digital presses (it has just bought its fifth). The company still occasionally outsources orders to local flexo converters, but, according to Managing Director Simon Smith “the speed improvements provided by Xeikon, along with the reduced run lengths being demanded by many customers, mean that digital really does seem to cover most of the requirements of our current client base.”

For Peterlynn, another UK label converter, the decision to invest in a Xeikon label press was motivated, according to Marketing Manager Vicky Waine, by “the food-safe properties of Xeikon’s QA-1 toner, which opens the door for us to supply labels to the many food manufacturing companies in this area.” Just down the road at Mercian Labels, they are also using Xeikon equipment, and have just installed Xeikon Color Control. Mercian’s MD Adrian Steele says, “The new color control system allows the closest possible matching of colors to both the full Pantone book as well as to hard copies of previously printed packaging and labels provided by customers.”

Xeikon’s existing digital print technology uses dry toner. However the company is also developing a new technology called ‘Trillium’, not yet being marketed. Franck Jacobs, marketing communication manager of Xeikon International, recently leaked a few details: “Trillium is a liquid toner process, using high-viscosity oil as a solvent for the toner. The aim is to be able to print the same quality or better than at present, but faster and at lower cost. This new technology will also eliminate the problem of dust particles which can arise with dry toner technology.”

Groundhog day for investors?
With apparently all systems go for Xeikon’s future expansion and profitability, it is not surprising that investors who went to earth when the whole print and paper industry went into a decline, are now emerging from their burrows and sniffing the air. In a press release published mid-January, Xeikon said it was “engaged in discussions with a party, who has indicated to Xeikon that it may be interested in entering into a potential transaction regarding Xeikon, by way of making a public takeover bid for all shares in the capital of Xeikon.” By the time you read these lines it may well be all over, but if it isn’t, why not put in a bid ?