Why packaging processes are the essential ingredient for food safety

The Australian food and beverage market is one of the country’s major industries, with an annual revenue of $2.1 billion. It is populated by a variety of iconic and enduring brands. In such a crowded market, it can be difficult for smaller businesses to stand out. But with the right tools and processes in place, even the smallest businesses can compete on a level-playing field with larger operators.

Packaging is one of the crucial ways that businesses can build their brand and differentiate themselves from their competition. With strong links between visual presentation and positive memories, it’s an essential piece of a brand’s identity. Iconic Australian brands like Vegemite, Arnott’s and Cadbury can be instantly recognised by their packaging, and it has a direct impact on the perception of their brand.

But packaging is more than just a “pretty face” – it has an important role in protecting the health and safety of customers. This was made clear in last year’s strawberry tampering scandal, when Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s (FSANZ) report into needle contamination suggested that more effective, tamper-proof packaging could be one way to prevent future incidents. Similarly, with the debate over single-use plastics and resource wastage growing stronger by the day, packaging can also signify a company’s commitment to sustainability.

In the wake of food issues like strawberry tampering and combined with increasing competition and a focus on sustainability, having streamlined, consistent and high-quality packaging processes during manufacturing is now more important than ever. A high standard of packaging not only attracts new customers to a brand, it can also save costs, protect customer safety, and maximise business resources.

The importance of safe packaging
The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code lays out a series of standards that food businesses must maintain, including an active commitment to reducing the risk of food contamination and protecting the health of consumers. The code outlines that packaging must be durable, of a high quality, not leach chemicals or allow harmful microorganisms to become mixed with the food, among other requirements. Contamination remains a core risk of packaging processes and can be caused by poor manufacturing conditions or inconsistent cleaning and sanitising processes.

When managing food processes, consistency is key. Quality packaging is costly to manufacture, so it’s equally important to use it efficiently and effectively. This requires constant monitoring, skilled workers, and equipment that’s up to the task. But maintaining high quality standards doesn’t just mean being “compliant” to current legislation – it requires an active commitment to constantly improving manufacturing processes.

Reducing risks
One simple fact of food manufacturing is that the presence of human workers on the production line carries the risk of contamination, from various bodily fluids to the growth of harmful bacteria in manufacturing environments. In the first two months of 2019, there have been nine food recall reports from FSANZ, including a variety of dairy product recalls due to the presence of E. coli bacteria, as well as a beer nut recall due to the presence of glass fragments. These incidents, which have potential to cause illness or harm, were likely the result of inefficient manufacturing processes or human error.

When taking on dull and repetitive tasks in the workplace, fatigue can lead to mistakes. In the food and beverages industry, these mistakes can be harmful, but actively improving production processes and introducing new technologies can prevent them.

Investing in technology and automation is one obvious solution: not only to reduce risk, but also to improve productivity. Since being installed in manufacturing plants in the 1970s, robots have evolved to take on increasingly complex tasks. Now, the latest robotic technology can take on smaller scale and more intricate work, and handle more delicate products, such as eggs and fruit.

Collaborating for better packaging processes
In particular, collaborative robots (cobots) are a growing technology that the food and beverage industry has an opportunity to adopt to reduce the risk of contamination and maintain high levels of product consistency. With their small size, flexible and adaptive setup, and ability to work in close-proximity with people, cobots can be used across food and beverage production facilities, from picking and placing to packing or palletising.

This process often takes place in a “clean room”, where products can be manufactured in a controlled environment to reduce the risk of pathogen transference. Cobots working to produce items such as dairy and juice can create longer-lasting products, as well as ensure consistent output.

By integrating cobots into the production line, a company can reduce the risk of cross-contamination across a plant. Additionally, automating repetitive tasks not only increases consistency and productivity but it also frees up employees to take up more interesting and engaging tasks. Reallocating these tasks creates new opportunities for workers to learn valuable, transferable skills such as programming, keeping them more engaged and alert while working on the production line.

The food and beverage industry has a long history of adapting to changing taste, trends, and technology. Introducing automation technology like cobots to the workplace has the potential to improve overall safety, reduce waste, and improve productivity. It is important the industry does not wait for another safety scandal to act: it’s time to get on the front foot and ensure the sector’s efficiency, growth and success for years to come.