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Modern packaging - food contact means safe to eat?

By Wendy Erasmus on 19 September 2016

It is that time of the morning when everyone in the house is in a mad rush to hit the road to school or to work. Breakfast is something that is supposed to be quick and easy. No fuss, no mess, just some milk and cereal and we are on our way. Well……. that would be the case if you could only get that darn plastic pouch to open. The plastic Ziploc is well and truly zipped. Then making the next mistake of thinking that the carton box will be an easier conquest, only to discover that when you have managed to eventually pry the glued or perforated seal open, there is an extremely tear resistant inner package waiting inside for you.

Rewind back to the good old days when packaging did not require an instruction manual or specialised tools to open and protecting food from potential acts of sabotage and bioterrorism were scenes from the next science fiction movie. Fast forward to today, and now there is a whole new market for innovative packaging that not only protects the product but also the environment and suddenly, we realize that science fiction has merged with reality. The packaging industry, which is extremely dynamic, and continuously developing improvements to applications and technologies in order to meet customer requirements while simultaneously saving the planet, is on the forefront of this revelation.


So what are the functions of packaging?

  • Physical protection - The food enclosed in the package may require protection from, among other things, shock, vibration, compression, temperature, bacteria, etc.
  • Barrier protection - A barrier from oxygen, water vapour, dust, etc., is often required
  • Containment - Small items are typically grouped together in one package to allow efficient handling. Liquids, powders, and granular materials need containment.
  • Information - Packages and labels communicate how to use, transport, recycle, or dispose of the package or product. Some types of information are required by law
  • Marketing - The packaging and labels can be used by marketers to encourage potential buyers to purchase the product.
  • Security - Packaging can play an important role in reducing the security risks of shipment. Packages can be made with improved tamper resistance to deter tampering and also can have tamper-evident features to help indicate tampering.
  • Convenience - Packages can have features which add convenience in distribution, handling, stacking, display, sale, opening, reclosing, use, and reuse.
  • Portion control - Single-serving packaging has a precise amount of contents to control usage. Bulk commodities (such as salt) can be divided into packages that are a more suitable size for individual households.

Two of the functions of any packaging, is to contain and protect the product. These functions are very closely interlinked and play an important role regarding the quality and shelf life of consumable products. Most products are packaged at some point in the food chain as the majority of these cannot be moved or transported unless they are contained.

 Ok, so aside from the frustration of trying to open packages in a hurry and the gratification and acknowledgement that the product is well and truly protected, should we still be concerned about the chemicals used to manufacture these new super advanced packaging materials? We have all been cautioned against the use certain plastics, foils and coated paper products for food contact packaging in the past, but how valid are these warnings now? Is there some hidden or yet undiscovered substance lurking in the packaging waiting to send the consumer watch dogs into a new frenzy?


Some packaging issues we will investigate:

  • What is the chemical composition of food contact materials?
  • What chemicals migrate from food contact materials into food and beverages, under which conditions and at what levels?
  • What are the health consequences of chronic exposure to low levels of food contact chemicals and mixtures thereof?

Stay tuned for the next few articles where we will be taking an in depth look at the good, the bad and the ugly in the packaging industry and where we will be separating the myths from the facts.

In the meantime, keep a good sharp pair of kitchen scissors handy for opening those breakfast pouches and cartons in a hurry.


What are the legal requirements for packaging? 

Check out our Legislation Section...  Act 13 of 1929


Have you seen these South African standards:

SANS 13302:
Sensory analysis - Methods for assessing modifications to the flavour of foodstuffs due to packaging

SANS 5490:  
Assessment of tainting of foodstuffs by packaging materials



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