Food Labeling

By Greg Hrinya, Associate Editor | January 20, 2017

Regulations and aesthetics drive this complex label market.

From the substrate manufacturer to the converter, food labels touch many aspects of the label and packaging industry. Not only do these labels need to be aesthetically pleasing, they must also adhere to a host of changing regulations. There is a delicate balance between creating a label that is attractive while being functional.

Food labels are categorized as either being direct contact or indirect contact. Direct food contact labels physically touch the outside of the product such as a piece of fruit or vegetable. Direct contact labels often require a special adhesive or varnish. Indirect food contact labels feature a barrier between the label and the food itself. For example, a label will attach to a bag, box or container containing a food product.

There are a multitude of substrates that are applicable for this market. Avery Dennison offers a variety of paper and filmic options for food labeling. “From a base material perspective, we see a lot of traditional materials being utilized,” explains Angel Harvey, product manager of Prime Films at Avery Dennison Label and Packaging Materials. “Whether that is the 54-pound semi gloss or you’re looking at traditional print methods with water-based flexo or filmic options like Global MDO or BOPPs, those are very traditional. A trend that we’ve seen in food is around reclosure, and that’s more functional of the label.”

Food packaging might require some form of durability or squeeze functionality, as is often the case with many condiments. A Global MDO or BOPP substrate will frequently be used, and either will provide a bigger billboard to promote the product, as well as brand knowledge.

Avery Dennison has seen piggyback and promotional labels, as well as the company’s photo-reactive adhesive technology come into play. These options allow for more information to be included on a label without altering the construction of the food package.

Avery Dennison’s Select Solutions Reclosure Portfolio has become a popular resource for food labels in the indirect food contact arena. Reclosure labels are frequently used for deli meats but could also gain more traction in dry snacks and produce. The company also provides a number of adhesives to work with dry, moist and wet reclosure applications. Consumers ultimately value ease of use.

“Brand managers can showcase that ease of use through functionality within the reclosure label, where it’s easy to open and it has a smooth, buttery peel compared to a potentially rigid case with a snap lid or a zipper where, once you open it, it doesn’t really close again,” says Anh Marella, senior product manager of Select Solutions at Avery Dennison. “It’s really about the consumer and what the consumer values.”

UPM Raflatac provides consumers with both high-gloss and semi-gloss papers with permanent all temp or deep freeze adhesives. In dealing with the trend of organic and gourmet foods, the company will also utilize textured uncoated papers similar to wine label materials. “Direct thermal top coated papers are widely being used in food packs,” explains Paavo Sillanpaa, Business Segments manager, Specials, Americas, at UPM Raflatac. “Filmic materials are also gaining market share, especially in applications where a no label look, squeezability or water resistance is required.”

In addition to the functional aspects of these labels, they must also stand out on the shelf. “For a food label to be effective, it has to be appealing to the eye, just as a wine or craft beer label does,” says Michael Rodenborn, vice president of sales and marketing at Mepco Label Systems. “Even a salad or muffin label needs to look amazing aesthetically. Research is necessary to learn what the target market for that product reacts to and what makes them choose a certain product over another.”

Mepco prints its food labels with digital and flexographic presses. For its flexo labels, Mepco mainly relies on Mark Andy and Nilpeter. On the digital side, the converter utilizes an EFI Jetrion inkjet press and a new HP Indigo WS6800 digital press. “With the addition of our HP, it allows us to run very small runs for large clients,” adds Rodenborn. “We recently ran 50 labels for a client who had a presentation to a large chain store for a new product. It also allowed us to move high SKU flexo jobs to digital. For example, we recently had a cheese company with 40 SKUs, which totaled 250,000 labels.”

“For me, the good old fashioned ‘first moment of truth’ is still valid,” adds Sillanpaa. “With so much more variety on the shelves these days, the product’s packaging and label has to be attractive enough and appealing to make the consumer to pick the product up from the shelf. This is a combination of excellent design, choice of correct labeling material and printing technology employed. Modern combination printing machines with embellishment options and various digital printing technologies can reproduce the most stunning designs.”

Changing Regulations
Food labels must adhere to a strict set of regulations handed down by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to Laura Cummings, Health, Safety and Environment director at UPM Raflatac, the most commonly applied standards can be found in Title 21 CFR Parts 170 -178. Although the pressure sensitive label community frequently refers to direct and indirect food contact, those terms are not found in the FDA’s regulations. The FDA only differentiates between direct and indirect food additives.

“Direct food additives are substances deliberately added to food like preservatives, and indirect food additives are chemical substances that come into contact with food due to their use as part of packaging, holding or processing food, but are not intended to be added directly to, become a component, or have a technical effect in or on food,” explains Cummings.

Specific FDA indirect food additive regulations, which may apply to a label, often deal with adhesives, resinous and polymeric coatings, laminate structures for specific temperatures, and components that come into contact with aqueous, fatty and dry foods.

In May of 2016, the FDA announced that it would require a new Nutrition Facts food label. The label will include a new design that features calories and serving sizes, added sugars, and dual column labels to highlight calories per serving and package. This label reboot is intended to simplify the process for consumers to make informed diet choices. End users will then be able to establish links between food choices and conditions like obesity and heart disease.

“It’s a very rigorous process,” says Avi Basu, director of marketing and business development, HP. “Typically in the US, a lot of food companies in the early days were testing themselves. Now, I think with the model that exists, they rely on certification from their suppliers and converters. So converters look to their vendors like us and say, ‘Can you make sure this applies?’  We have very stringent testing requirements where materials work for certain applications and we won’t use them for something else. That’s the way we approach it – the complete chain-of-custody. A lot of our customers are using it already.”

The new food label laws must be adhered to by July 2018. Changing regulations create a large opportunity for converters. “Obviously, these new regulations mean that every company will have to create new labels, one way or another,” says Larry Moore, Esko’s vice president – Partner Programs, North America.

Cummings adds that President Obama recently signed into law a bill that creates a federal labeling standard for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. “Although the regulations implementing the law are not expected to be finalized for some time, we expect that consumer demand for information like this and disclosures concerning food ingredients and nutritional information are here to stay, and likely labels will be widely used to convey this information to consumers,” she says.

Esko has developed several strategies to help converters and their customers in creating new labels. The company has responded with templates to help the integration of new requirements. In addition, Esko has created tools with regard to the dynamic content of WebCenter. These tools connect directly with the brand owner’s content to assure access to the new nutritional information is accurate and does not have to be retyped. “One way to help out is to use dynamic panels, content and templates,” explains Moore. “Esko offers software that is able to automatically draw content from a brand owner’s database or asset management system so that everyone is assured that there are no typos, and the content used is the most recent copy – and accurate.”

Users can create virtual proofs in Esko Studio and share them throughout the supply chain via Esko WebCenter. This process allows for quick review and approval of the label redesigns.
For substrate manufacturers, the materials must adhere to global regulations and guidelines passed down from the FDA. “We have a rigorous process that we use to determine which regulations our labels adhere to, and we do conduct detailed assessments of our products and our chemical bonds to determine if our products adhere to FDA and European food contact regulations, everything across the globe,” says Sarah Sanzo, product compliance manager at Avery Dennison Label and Packaging Materials. “It seems like regulations are changing all of the time. There’s no set timeframe, as some of the guidelines have resets every six months,” she adds.

Winning at the shelf
In order for food labels to be successful, they need to do more than just convey ingredients. Like products in the wine and beverage segments, food packaging needs to pop off the shelf, all while maintaining the FDA’s standards.

According to Mepco’s Rodenborn, there are a number of successful techniques that help these labels stand out at the point of purchase, including high-end graphics, photos, foils, embossing, metallic inks, special textures and varnishes, soft touch matte and UV lamination, instant redeemable coupons, and extended content coupons.

“What we really want to convey to our prospective clients – and current ones as well – is to separate yourself from the competition,” explains Rodenborn. “Have a ‘This is why you should choose me’ mindset when in the design phase of packaging. Examples are adding a QR code that takes you to a landing page of your website, or augmented reality that allows the consumer to take a virtual tour of the company and or product.”

Mepco often uses clear, BOPP, matte varnish/lamination, embossing and foils to enhance its food labels. As the run lengths grow larger, converters often take advantage of recycled stocks, PET liners and thinner facestocks. In going thinner, companies might shift from 2.6 mil to 2.4 mil, 2 mil or even 1.6 mil. While consumers will rarely notice such a change, the decreased thickness can lead to increased profitability. 

Food brands like Oreo and Planters have found success with hyper customization through HP’s Mosaic program, as well. “This allows you to not only target a specific demographic but lets you drill down to be community specific,” adds Rodenborn.

Going digital
According to HP’s Basu, digital is a growing presence in food labeling and packaging for several reasons. Many consumer brands are taking advantage of digital in the flexible packaging space, with brands opting for pouches, for example.

Basu adds that digital printing has increased in food labeling because of shifting demographics.  “If you look at the demographics part of it in the US, there are more and more people living single or without any kids. So the days of going to a Costco or big warehouse-style store and buying in bulk, that percentage is shrinking,” he explains. “More people are responding to that with smaller portions of foods and other items. To do that, the run length becomes very different from what it was in the previously.”

Digital has also proven to be a reliable source of quality imaging. Both EP and inkjet offer solutions that can help brands stand out on the shelf, even at very small run lengths. “For more high-end brands where quality matters, imaging matters, consistency matters, Indigo is by far the best solution,” says Basu. “However, there are some great inkjet solutions that are also digital. Digital is definitely making a huge push, in the scheme of the overall market it’s miniscule but the growth rate is huge. In the next three to four years, it will continue to grow dramatically.”
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