Strong and Sophisticated
By Richard Mitchell
New films, labels, and labeling equipment are data-friendly and tough enough to withstand marketplace rigors.
A new generation of films, labels, adhesives, laminates, and machinery is being designed to make it easier for producers to display data on packages such as bar codes, ingredients, quality assurance seals, recipes, sweepstakes rules, cooking instructions, weights and prices, brand names, and help-line numbers.
Products also are being enhanced to enable processors and packers to operate with greater efficiencies to give them the flexibility to apply graphics to any part of the film, and to utilize multi-layer labels.
“There is so much information that has to be on the package these days, and the challenge is to include all the data while not covering up the view of the product,” says Joseph Rucco, vice president of operations for Catelli Brothers, a Collingswood, NJ-based veal and lamb processor. “It has become a big issue over the last several years.”
Product manufacturers, thus, are developing the means to make meat and poultry packages more presentable. New Kensington, PA-based Yerecic Label, for instance, is marketing an adhesive that enables packers and processors to attach triple layers of pealable labels to film without impacting the wrap’s breathability.
While such multi-layer labeling is common to the consumer-goods market, its use in the meat and poultry sector necessitated the development of permeable adhesives that allow air to move through the label into packages. Enhanced air flow permits products to maintain their color longer, making the products more visually appealing to consumers.
Printing product-related data on detachable labels instead of film also makes it easier for customers to collect cooking information and other keepsakes. “Many consumers are weary of handling meat and poultry film after it is opened because of sanitary concerns,” says Rich Thoma, vice president of sales and marketing for Yerecic.
Farmland Foods Inc., a Kansas City, MO-based pork producer, is among the processors embracing peel-back labels. Farmland is using a two-layer design to provide recipes, promote a recipe contest, and display pictures of contest winners, says Bert Lawson, manager of the Farmland Foods test kitchen and consumer relations.
“Being able to put information on pull-up coupons is very helpful because there is not enough room on the film to print all our data and still have enough space for the customer to view the meat,” Lawson notes. “And we don’t want to put information cards inside the package because that area gets pretty slimy.”
Yerecic, meanwhile, also is beginning to produce paper labels in addition to the traditional plastic. While less costly than plastic, paper labels lack the durability to withstand the stressful packaging and transportation processes.
But with the release of enhanced varnishes, processors now are able to coat paper labels with a durable plastic that is better able to withstand moisture and the pressure from the freezing and thawing of meat and poultry.
Thoma estimates that it costs $14 to $15 to print 1,000 3-inch-by-4-inch paper labels using the new coating, compared to $21 to $22 for the plastic labels.
Machinery, meanwhile, also is being upgraded to streamline the labeling process. Users of the ES600 series of weight and price machines from Niagara Falls, NY-based Espera N.A. Inc., for instance, can specify via a personal computer the specific labeling locations on different-sized packages. After programming the equipment, operators just press the appropriate button on the machine to affix the proper label.
Espera’s ES series also is designed to more easily support the labeling of case-ready meat and poultry. The labeling machine — in instances where packages are of a similar weight and price — will automatically reject a tray from the production line if it detects that the tray’s weight is below a predetermined threshold.
Such functionality is just the beginning of what will be a plethora of further enhancements to labeling equipment that will take shape over the next few years, forecasts William A. Cooper, Espera president and chief executive officer.
Cooper says a key driver will be the desire to reduce labor costs. Thus, he expects cameras to eventually replace workers in the monitoring of conveyer belts. As each tray is viewed, the camera will signal the labeling machine and specify where the label should be affixed. Other upgrades will include the automated changing of label rolls in equipment, Cooper adds.
“There will be less of a human factor involved in labeling, with the machine becoming more of a robot,” he says. “And without humans participating, we can expect less machine downtime.”
Indeed, the prospect of reduced downtime — leading to enhanced operating efficiencies — is the main selling point for other labeling devices. Bizerba USA Inc., a Piscataway, NJ-based developer of weight and labeling products, is marketing its GLMI line of modular units that enable users to quickly alter their gear to support new labeling requirements, says Dean Dunlap, Bizerba USA national sales manager, industrial products.
For instance, Bizerba’s packers, who receive orders to immediately begin placing labels on different areas of packages, need only to slide the appropriate module into their labeling machines instead of buying new equipment or renovating their current devices, he notes.
Users can expect to pay about $20,000 to add an additional module to a line, compared to more than $58,000 to either reconfigure or buy new machinery, Dunlap says. He predicts modular units will become increasingly popular if government agencies continue to require new information on labels. Future labels, he notes, might contain multiple bar codes that better identify the source of the meat or poultry for easy tracking during product recalls.
“Given the regulatory nature of the meat and poultry industries, we can expect more and more information to be needed on packages,” Dunlap says. “The challenge for the processor is to be in position to quickly put labels in the correct places.”
Among other upgrades are technologies that increase machine print speed for greater product throughput and more-resilient labels. Equipment from Tampa, FL-based Convergent Label Technology, for instance, can print 12 inches of labels per second, double the rate of five years ago, says Chris Walker, Convergent vice president and general manager of equipment.
And new label substrates from the vendor are designed to eliminate curl and enable labels to stick to any product surface, regardless of weather conditions or the shape of packages, adds Jim Carides, Convergent vice president of technology.
The availability of more-effective and potent adhesives is crucial if labels are to work effectively with the widening range of film products.
Cooper City, FL-based Syfan USA Corp., for instance, expects to soon begin marketing its Systec RF4 shrink-wrap, a polyolefin film that creates a hygienic, hermetically sealed tray when used for meat and poultry packaging, says Paul Buemi, Syfan director of marketing support, training, and product development.
By heat-welding two pieces of film on a tray, processors are able to eliminate the threat of leaks, and provide a barrier against outside bacteria, Buemi notes. The RF4 also is designed to remain tight during storage and transportation and to quickly bounce back to its original state after pressure is applied to a package.
Buemi adds that the shrink-wrap is intended to improve upon the PVC films that typically are wrapped around a tray, but often are unable to prevent moisture from dripping out of packages. Syfan began developing the RF4 two years ago and introduced it in Europe last year. The company now is “fine-tuning” the product so it is able to run on any packer’s or processor’s packaging machinery.
Other films intended to improve food quality include ThermoPOP from Fair Lawn, NJ-based VersaPack. Released in January, ThermoPOP is a self-venting microwavable film that is designed to keep moisture in meat and poultry during cooking and reheating. It allows users to cook or heat products without having to puncture or peel back the cover of the package.
VersaPack also recently rolled out the SCR Pouch, a retortable four-layer laminate pouch composed of polyester, nylon, aluminum, and polypropylene. Target temperatures of items stored in the SCR Pouch can be reached 10 percent to 20 percent quicker than meat and poultry in cans, says Anthony Catino, VersaPack director. The company expects to eventually market film with antimicrobials for greater food safety, he adds.
The LID550P film from the Duncan, SC-based Cryovac, division of Sealed Air Corp., meanwhile, is designed to support meat shelf-life for up to 21 days. The film hermetically seals to the preformed barrier foam tray during the packaging process.
Such new films and labeling products help processors become more productive while strengthening food and package quality, it is important that the designs still remain compatible with most current-generation products and technologies, Convergent’s Walker says.
The blocking agent or thermal image on newer film, for instance, sometimes can repel older labeling adhesives, which could lead to an unexpected halt in the packing process if the inconsistencies are not detected ahead of time, Walker notes.
“Many different companies are manufacturing chemicals, films, and devices that are not always in sync, and that is causing some problems and even forcing some processors to convert to more expensive adhesions,” Walker adds. “And there is no industry movement yet to address the situation.”
Though there might be some backlash from products evolving too rapidly, increasingly sophisticated technologies still are adding enduring value to film and labeling operations.
Richard Mitchell is a Chicago-area freelance writer.