According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), there are nearly 40,000 products in a typical supermarket, all competing for the same consumer dollars. With an increased use of digital and social media to interact directly with the consumer, manufacturers are gauging real-time preferences and receiving instant feedback. As the battle for consumer spending continues relentlessly, factors and trends such as food safety, convenience and an active concern for the environment weigh heavily in buying decisions. These trends — all seen at PACK EXPO Las Vegas 2013 last month — will continue to drive advances in technology and materials science to produce innovative processing and packaging solutions. 

Safety first

With food safety always at the forefront, there is a strong push for technologies that protect against potentially harmful pathogens. New nanotechnology developments with oxygen scavenging and antimicrobial benefits continue to be a major trend in packaging, extending the shelf life of food products and maintaining consumer safety. 

Food manufacturers are also using high-pressure processing (HPP) to eliminate pathogens. This process treats sealed food products in a compartment, in which high pressure is applied to render yeast, mold and bacteria inactive. By exposing products with increased water content — such as meat — to high pressure, processors can ensure food safety without using extreme temperatures that can alter taste or consistency.

It is important to note that techniques like HPP are only effective if put into practice. To that end, the Food Safety Manufacturing Act (FSMA) expands the focus on preventing contamination rather than reacting when outbreaks occur. The new law aims to encourage manufacturers to leverage data collection and proactive training in implementing protocols that minimize the potential for product contamination and streamline efficiency in addressing any incidents that do occur. 

Stemming from concerns about the safety of food packaging materials such as Bisphenol A (BPA), manufacturers will continue to pay closer attention to packaging processes and materials. With perceived health risks associated with BPA used in food and beverage packaging, consumers want to be assured that any materials coming into direct contact with their food are safe, while manufacturers want to get ahead of any safety issues or impending legislation that might erode public confidence in their brands. This is driving the development of alternative materials for food packaging, such as bio-based polymers.

Sensible packaging

New technologies continue to emerge to help boost the shelf impact of packaging. For example, multi-sensory packaging that is aimed at one or more of the consumer’s senses, including sight, touch and even the sense of smell using microencapsulation (e.g. scratch n’ sniff effects), are being seen more often. 

As offerings such as finished ready-to-eat (RTE) breakfast sandwiches, which target consumers with on-the-go lifestyles, gain in popularity, shoppers are also seeing packaging innovations designed to increase convenience and ease-of-use. Even brands that are iconic for their tin packaging are offering easy-to-open, resealable plastic tub as a packaging option, in an effort to attract new consumers.

Sustainable design and practices

Sustainability continues to be an ongoing priority among brand owners, as consumers demand less waste and manufacturers look to streamline their operations to reduce costs. The two aims are not mutually exclusive and the industry is seeing more environmentally-conscious packaging, such as an increased use of recyclable material. For example, packaging materials using bio-based plastics in place of conventional petroleum-based plastics are growing in popularity.

Food manufacturers are also incorporating sustainability practices into their operations. Consumers want products from manufacturers who share their concern for the environment.

Trends in action

Although safety continues to be the key driver in food packaging design, yielding industry innovations from antimicrobial nanomaterials to advanced manufacturing processes that eliminate pathogens, consumers are playing a more active role in determining product packaging. We saw many of these trends illustrated in the technologies seen this September at PACK EXPO Las Vegas 2013. 

Food manufacturers are able to utilize various forms of social media to gauge consumers’ wants and needs.

This type of direct communication with the consumer may very well result in the discovery of the “next big thing” in packaging design. Look to PACK EXPO International 2014 (Nov. 2-5, 2014; McCormick Place, Chicago), where we expect to see how consumer input continues to shape tomorrow’s processing and packaging innovations among the projected 1,800 exhibitors showcasing the next generation of manufacturing solutions.