Consumer brand loyalty is a major pre-occupation for food producers and retailers alike. The first exposure people have to convenience food products is the packaging a meal is contained in, so this experience has to be based on factors such as quality, accessibility, ease of use, robustness, and the simple disposal of trays and webs. Such circumstances mean that the packaging and sealing industry is constantly innovating to support supermarkets, other outlets and food processors alike in achieving their business goals.

Quality counts

Innovations in materials can help brand owners expand the convenience meal options they offer consumers. The pack can help the consumer make easier selections based on the quality of the product and its presentation, according to Simon Chappell at DuPont Teijin Film (DTF).

He cites Marks & Spencer (M&S) as one convenience food supplier that prefers an impressive clear film, with easy transparency, so the quality of the product is fully displayed. ‘There are also specific innovations coming through in terms of improving environmental friendliness and managing light weighting,’ he says.

Innovations within the packaging industry are of great importance regarding the options offered to the consumers, comments Inge Norgaard of Faerch Plast. ‘Packaging manufacturers can adjust visual parameters such as design, colour and patterns. Innovations in choice of material are constantly developing. These factors enhance the attractiveness of the product to the consumer. In addition, intelligent and active packaging is also becoming a key feature of this market, based on combination materials,’ she says.

Another development is olfactory, according to Norgaard. In the future, it will be possible to stimulate the senses through packaging and influence buying behaviours. All these parameters give the food producers a large selection of packaging options to choose from.

The innovations and the optimisation of food packaging make food production more convenient, she adds. The packaging manufacturers are continuously improving the sealing layer – making seals easy and safe. This also improves the production process.

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Adapting the packaging stock means trays take up less space. The packaging manufacturers ensure shelf life, security, the taste and colour of the food, thus making the product an attractive purchase. Packaging now mostly consists of more than one layer – an inside bag for protection and preparation and an outer shell, says Rob Schellekens, director of marketing and sales for Drent Goebel. This trend will continue with major enhancements over time.

Details about transportation, advertising, promotions, branding and stackability are items that can be displayed on convenience food packaging. Increasingly, the packaging has to incorporate all these features in one effective message to the consumer. The product that is taken from the shelf in the supermarket must be ready to be placed directly in the microwave and used for serving.

Supermarkets want processed food packaging that ultimately enhances the quality of the product. The outer shells of the ready meals must look pristine, even after time spent in storage, on retailer shelves and within cooler units. The product still has to look perfect right up to its use-by date. ‘This boosts the attractiveness of the product and creates consumer confidence that the ready meal will be a quality experience and nutritious too,’ says Schellekens.

Quality and integrity in convenience food packaging are essential elements to assist the sale of the convenience food products, says Fabrice Roy, executive marketing director for Europe, Cryovac division at Sealed Air. He stresses that the packaging has to be easy to open for all people and generally accessible to all consumers. ‘Convenience has to mean ease of use as well as ready-to-eat,’ he says. This means that ready meals must be accessible to children, the elderly and the disabled in addition to other buyers.

Sealing technology advances

Sealing technology is going through a sharp and progressive developmental curve. Some possible future developments include peelable, resealable films that can go in and out of ovens, sealable and breathable films, along with special kinds of anti-microbial films that extend shelf life and retain freshness.

Further areas of development include active packaging. This can cover how the food pack helps the consumer in cooking the product, whether it is a patch or the film changes colour, notifying them that the food is ready.

Consumers are also looking to retailers in particular for high integrity in terms of food safety. This is one area that DTF has specifically recognised, according to Chappell. However, to achieve consistent integrity it is not necessary to test the robustness and integrity of sealing products for each individual ready meal application. ‘DTF sets a higher standard,’ he says. ‘The company now tests ready meal pack sealing integrity at the maximum possible level required, regardless of the product type or price tag. Quality cannot be compromised in such a competitive retail environment.’

Sealing solutions are available that make it possible to heat-seal transparent lids through using the peelable sealing film mentioned earlier. This has a huge effect on the sector for food production giving advantages to processors, retailers and consumers alike.
Recent innovations within steam solutions include a tray that is designed to resist the pressure that builds up inside the pack. The lid film allows the pressure to build up to a predetermined level inside the pack when heated in the microwave. The film allows the excess pressure to be released. The result is an easy to prepare, healthy and attractive meal.

As the food retailers seek to expand sales of their ranges of ready meals, higher levels of sophistication are required, so the packaging may consist of more than one layer, according to Schellekens. The packaging now typically consists of an inside bag for protection and preparation, as well as an outside shell for transport, advertising, promotion, branding and high stackability. An information carrier can display all the information relevant to the ready food product. ‘Increasingly, the outer packaging has to incorporate all these features,’ he says.

This influences not only the choice of outer packaging material but also the quality of the print on the package. After time spent in storage and on the shelf, it still has to look perfect. This quality factor has to be apparent even after the product is cooked in a microwave or normal oven.

‘Sealing technology is an enabler for peak integrity for convenience foods, stretching from security to quality,’ says Roy. ‘It is vital to leave the consumer with the confidence that ready-made meals are good selections for family and other situations. There are also developments to bring the look and taste of home cooking to convenience foods.’ Sealed Air uses a process called Darfresh, a vacuum-based system designed for ready meals which enables a heat and reheat option for consumers. Sealed Air claims that the ultimate seal integrity is possible with this technology.

Material basis

New materials are now becoming available that enhance the saleability of the ready meal product marketplace. One such mono-material is called CPET. CPET is used particularly for packing convenience products. This material is a mono-material that has excellent barriers, according to Norgaard.

In future, food producers will be able to choose between various types of new heat resistant packaging with high barrier properties. For example, these packaging solutions could be clear, heat-resistant mono-materials that can act as replacements for glass and other multi-layer materials. The advantage of the new plastic materials is the possibility of increasing and adapting the barrier properties on a flexible basis.

Several solutions to increase the robustness of ready food barriers will be available in future. As well as CPET, there are a few other materials that can be developed into barriers. One solution could be an active barrier – an oxygen absorber helping to ensure the shelf life of the product. However, CPET is most likely to be the material of the future compared with other plastic materials, according to Norgaard.

Sealing or laminating CPET can deliver better protection for the product so that stains do not show up on a carton. This process also makes the whole package look brighter and displays the convenience food so that it becomes more attractive to the consumer.

Convenient Trends

Trends within the market focus more on convenience. For example, there is the prospect of ready-to-cook products that are easy to prepare, while looking homemade. Bio-based materials such as PLA will play an important role. PLA is part of an active packaging project at Drent Goebel in which tests are made to see if shelf life can be extended due to a modification in the PLA material base. Further developments include CPLA, a heat-resistant bio-based material.

Packaging is getting smarter, according to Schellekens. Convenience means not only adapting the material, but also adapting the design. Perforated trays and double lids are becoming available, which makes it possible to combine two packs into one. These enhanced types of packaging are likely to play an important role in the future.

Some packaging solutions look like being smarter in another sense, with radio frequency identification (RFID) microchips being included with food packaging. RFID technology can push the functionality of so-called intelligent packaging along a new and highly useful direction. But this value proposition goes well beyond the containers and seals of the ready food product.

Even more important than just having RFID chips as an evolution of the bar code will be the additional synergy that this technology can foster between packaging firms and supermarkets as their plans for new services evolve.

Drent Goebel is reaching the point where it will be able to support supermarkets implementing advanced in-store services based on RFID. Schellekens outlines one potential scenario instance. ‘A consumer puts her or his own ID card in the shopping cart. At home, they will have made a shopping list using a computer or other device, which is then transferred to the ID card. The shopping cart will now direct the shopper to the shelves where the required products can be found based on the shopping list. Such a service will also inform the purchaser when a specific product is on special offer.’

Regulatory challenges

Legislation remains an issue within Europe regarding food packaging, with different countries retaining domestic laws and standards. The goal has to be an attempt to achieve one set of EU regulations for food packaging solutions, says Chappell.

The first step towards such harmonisation is the requirement for each nation to sign up to the European legislation. Some nations are expressing the intention that they will sign up. But until the signatory list is actually complete, some countries are going to keep their own national legislation in addition to the European rules. There are differences between the nations that will be difficult to bridge.

Across the continent, DTF expects growth in Germany, France and Italy. The USA is also moving forward in convenience foods. Yet moving to chilled from frozen demands different distribution channels. The US market has been particularly oriented towards the frozen food market.

‘This fragmentation of the food market makes life very complicated for food packaging suppliers,’ according to Chappell. ‘But DTF has built up an internal support service to advise on the regulations pertaining to each country. Regulatory experts are available to provide the relevant guidance, and as a global player, DTF is able to comment and offer advice on both EU and US FDA food contact regulations.’

Growth rates are also looking good. ‘Double-digit expansion in the chilled food sector in the UK can be expected in the near term. Expanding the view to Europe and globally, there is still strong growth potential,’ Chappell adds.

One area that is growing fast is the fresh produce sector, so the food-packaging suppliers will be looking to innovate there. The USA remains an important market, but it requires a different distribution model, says Chappell.

‘The concept of what constitutes a suitable food product barrier is of key importance,’ says Roy, ‘as this differs from country to country. So companies in the packaging and sealing sector have to adapt to a given regulatory environment. There appears to be no panacea for this situation.’

There will also be other demanding circumstances to tackle. For instance, in countries where supply chains are slower or less well organised, a different approach has to take place. Such circumstances mean that different sealing techniques will probably have to be applied, depending on circumstances. This echoes the comments made earlier by DTF regarding international regulations for packaging and sealing solutions.

Until true regulatory harmonisation and packaging commonality takes place in the EU, the packaging suppliers may have to support what is effectively a bespoke marketplace, where different requirements will apply in each geography. Even so, the food packaging supplier base looks capable of meeting the challenge.