Food Safety Risks of Packaging
When we talk about food safety, packaging may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s a critical element of keeping food safe. Packaging not only maintains product freshness and prevents spoilage, but also displays important information like ingredients and expiration dates. Packaging mishaps can wreak havoc on manufacturing companies and compromise the integrity of their products.
The process of food preparation and packaging is a long road, and one that includes multiple chances for potential error. Effective protection requires us to identify where supply chain mistakes can occur and how to prevent them.
Because food safety is generally focused on the preparation of food, the risk of contamination during the packaging process may be overlooked. Physical contamination can include metal particles, plastic shavings, glass shards, mechanical parts, and other unwanted materials. They might be introduced into the process through surfaces, conversion, secondary packaging, manufacturing, warehousing, and even transportation. Cases of physical contamination can lead to customer complaints, health risks, and product recalls.
Higher risk packaging tends to include:
- Paperboard products – Generally recycled numerous times, paperboard can pose a threat when recycled pulp contains foreign material.
- Rigid plastics – The manufacturing process of many containers and lids involves cutting away excess plastic. These pieces can sometimes remain in the container.
- Glass jars – If broken during the manufacturing or palletizing process, these containers can lead to the contamination of food products.
To minimize these hazards, inspection teams should routinely supervise the storage, uncrating, and staging of packaging prior to use. Likewise, workers should be trained on common physical contaminants and where they tend to occur most.
Two forms of chemical contamination include the presence of chemicals where they should not be and higher amounts than what is deemed safe. A few examples of chemical contamination include:
- Intentionally and erroneously-added ingredients – For instance, certain anti-static and grease-proofing agents can pose health risks to consumers.
- Non-food approved substances or unsuitable food-approved substances – In some cases, print inks and dyes on packaging have been known to migrate onto food products. Foods may also leach chemicals from non-food safe coatings.
- Pest control products
- Equipment maintenance chemicals
It’s important to know what components and substances your packaging materials contain. Always insist upon certificates of conformance and analysis supported by appropriate laboratory reports. Proper usage (in accordance with regulatory requirements) and safe storage of all chemicals is imperative to ensure food packaging safety.
Often occurring through exposure to pests, viruses, yeast, bacteria, and mold, microbiological contamination can occur at any stage of the packaging process. This type of contamination often plays a large role in the recalls we witness regularly and is not only financially devastating to businesses, but also severely damaging to their reputations.
Though effective personal hygiene, handwashing, and sanitation is a strong weapon against the spread of harmful pathogens, the complete elimination of microorganisms in any environment is nearly impossible. These contaminants reside in a myriad of places, including people, materials, pests, vehicles, equipment, and even air vents. Because of this, mitigating the risk of microbiological contamination is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The sheer number of possible harmful pathogenic organisms and their means of transmission is unique to each facility. An in-person, on-site evaluation of the facility, supply chain, and process is the best way to assess microbiological risk and prevention.
Because of the severity of many food allergies, mislabeling is arguably one of the most dangerous mistakes in commercial food packaging. In fact, the FDA considers mislabeling the second most common reason behind food recalls. These three factors often play the biggest role in mislabeling mishaps:
- Undisclosed ingredients – This occurs when the ingredients listed on the package do not match the food product, or when allergens in the product are not prominently displayed on the packaging.
- Mismatched labels – The wrong label on the wrong packaging, often occurring when more than one SKU is printed internally.
- Illegal product identification – Depending on the ingredients, certain products (like cheese that includes emulsifiers, preservatives, and food coloring) cannot be labeled as what they most closely resemble. This is why you will often see labels such as “pasteurized process cheese product” when the product contains less than 51% cheese.
To combat these issues, food packaging teams should have a robust label control program where label information is cross referenced and verified and extra or missing labels are documented and investigated. Due to the liability that exists from misbranded products and allergens, labels should be controlled, reconciled and their access limited to key individuals.
These teams should also regularly request ingredient and specification updates from producers and update affected labels accordingly. Ingredient lists should be complete and, in the US, any of the Big 8 allergens should be prominently displayed on all packaging.
Prevent. Correct. Protect.
It’s clear packaging comes with it’s own set of risks and liabilities, but your facility doesn’t have to do it alone. Avert Food Safety Advisors can provide your company with support, training and a clear course of action. Avert comes equipped with over 20 years of experience in the food safety industry and an advanced knowledge of microbiology. Let us help you solidify your business as a consumer-trusted brand.
Matthew McClure provides sound strategies that instill cost-effective methods for building robust food safety, operational and quality assurance programs. Along with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Microbiology from The University of Akron and an MBA in Finance from Louisiana State University, Matthew brings over 20 years of experience in the food safety industry to AVERT Food Safety Advisors. His knowledge spans many areas including FDA food processing facilities, USDA meat and poultry plants, dietary supplement manufacturers, retail, cannabis manufacturing, and food service operations.
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