Ask the right questions about food packaging design and materials

By Dr. Keith Vorst
Director for the Polymer and Food Protection Consortium at Iowa State University

Join Dr. Keith Vorst for “Make Every Package Count” at Supermarket Sense 2016, September 21-22 in Conyers, Ga.

Many retailers are inclined to rely solely on suppliers for food packaging without asking the right questions regarding the specific needs of their stores. In reality, taking control of that process and equipping themselves with the right information is a crucial step for food retailers. Knowing what materials and types of packaging work best for different products can help them in areas ranging from cost optimization to food waste reduction.

Retailers should take into consideration whether rigid or flexible packaging makes sense, the application the package is being used for and the temperature at which the packages are stored.

For instance, sometimes retailers are bewildered when refrigerated plastic packaging cracks. The likely culprit is materials that were sourced for holding a different category of foods – such as room-temperature croissants from the bakery – but were not meant to be refrigerated. Depending on the material makeup of the packaging, the plastic will respond negatively to certain temperature tolerances.

Just because the packaging seemingly meets the requirements for multiple uses does not mean it will function properly. In the end, it could cost retailers more money and risk a bad consumer experience.

This is one example of why it is imperative that food retailers make a commitment to provide specific input to packaging suppliers about product needs. Are the food items frozen, refrigerated, at room temperature or hot? How will the packages be stored? Will they be stacked? Nested? Are the lips on a package necessary or will they make it difficult to fit items into a display case? Will the food be reheated in the microwave?

Retailers must ask these questions and more as they take responsibility for how their products are stored and displayed. They need to ask suppliers if they have or can create the specifications to meet these product requirements – and then hold these companies accountable.

Besides concerns about cost, food waste and consumer experience, failing to more tightly control packaging can also raise issues of liability, spoilage and sustainability metrics.

And another key area of concern for retailers who do not do their packaging homework: the booming ready-to-eat, prepared foods sector. They must make sure specific requirements for these types of products are met – such as holding and reheating conditions. Retailers must leave no doubt with suppliers on these specifications.

Strong, interactive relationships with packaging suppliers are crucial to successful food retailing. Often, these relationships have a legacy quality to them and with that is an inherent tendency to simply accept the products offered because they are cheaper and seem likely to work.

Retailers must know that they are not at the mercy of packaging supplier options, and have a number of options that can work for them.

Supermarket Sense 2016 will bring together retail operations, thought leaders and dedicated food retail industry professionals for a comprehensive and collaborative training event next month in the Atlanta metro area. Sponsored by Hillphoenix, Unified Brands, Datassential and Harold Lloyd Presents, the two-day event will be held in Conyers, Ga. on September 21-22.

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