Improve Security Through Food Packaging

Feb. 14, 2006
Emerging technologies can help create a package that safeguards products from tampering and protects your brand from counterfeiting.

Packaging security is essential for food processors, and not just from the standpoint of keeping food unspoiled and safe to eat. Security, in the context of packaging, covers everything from consumer tampering to bioterrorism to product counterfeiting.

Tamper evidence isn't just for consumers. McCormick & Co. uses a bag with a characteristic pattern of perforations and tamper-evident tabs at each seal on 50-lb. packages of seasonings it sells to food processors.

Processors and their suppliers are developing a variety of packaging technologies to keep food safe from such interference and to provide fast, thorough product tracking and tracing in the event of a recall.

Overt and covert packaging techniques are becoming more sophisticated. Overt refers to something visible on the package, such as a lot code or tamper-evident band. Covert techniques require a scanner or other device for detection. Marking packages with invisible, ultraviolet-luminescent ink is an example of covert security.

In addition, as food and beverage companies increasingly experiment with RFID to satisfy retailer demands, they are enjoying the side benefit of greater control of cases and pallets moving through the supply chain. The heightened control increases the security of products during distribution.

A fundamental reason to incorporate security features into packaging is to provide protection against malicious tampering, or at least evidence of an attempt. Tamper-evident packages typically show visible signs of meddling, such as a revealed message or a broken seal.

And tamper evidence isn't just for consumer packaging. McCormick & Co. (www.mccormickflavors.com), Hunt Valley, Md., uses a tamper-evident feature on 50-lb. packages of seasonings, herbs, spices and other dry flavor systems it sells to food processors. The package is a multi-wall, pinch-seal paper bag.

The bag incorporates a characteristic pattern of perforations and tamper-evident tabs at each seal. It is also designed with a combination of primer and adhesive that makes fiber-tear evidence visible if anyone meddles with the package. In contrast, a typical pinch-seal bag can be resealed without detection. Exopack LLC (www.exopack.com), Spartanburg, S.C., worked with McCormick to design the package.

Combating counterfeiters

Another level of packaging security addresses the growing, global problem of food and beverage counterfeiting. Food processors' objective is to create a package that is so difficult or expensive to imitate that counterfeiters can't succeed, or perhaps don't even try to create a knock-off.

Long a problem for luxury products such as caviar, champagne and spirits, counterfeiting is emerging as a brand-security issue for commodity consumables, as well.

"It's a big misconception that anti-counterfeiting technologies are only for the high-end market. We're working with some mass-market products that are sold even through gas stations. We are getting more and more inquiries" from food companies, says Brian Brogger, vice president at Microtrace LLC (www.microtaggant.com), Minneapolis.

"The goal with package protection features is to present barriers to the counterfeiters and facilitate authentication by the manufacturer," says Doug Frazier, director of global product protection at Abbott Laboratories (www.abbott.com), Abbott Park, Ill. "Unique packaging and tooling that involves challenging manufacturing processes play a role as they make it more difficult for criminals to make counterfeit products."

Invisible codes can only be read under special lighting.

Abbott has developed an in-depth program to combat counterfeits of its products, which include nutritionals as well as pharmaceuticals. The company applies both overt and covert security features on many of its packages. "We constantly investigate anti-counterfeiting options and implement them as appropriate," Frazier says.

"Authenticating features can take many forms, some covert and some overt," he continues. "Overt features include color-shift inks, holograms, color-shift liquid crystals, sequential/random numbering, security threads and watermarks. Covert features include taggants, machine readable inks, digital watermarks, invisible graphics, security substrates and fluorescing particles. Each company needs to determine the best mix of these technologies for its products."

Taggants, which are traceable, microscopic particles, can be incorporated into packaging materials such as paper, plastic resins and films, adhesives and inks. Microtrace custom codes its Microtaggant particles to provide each customer with a unique fingerprint. The taggant code is a unique numeric code sequence embodied in a multi-colored, layered format.

Specialty taggants include energy-sensitive particles that, when interrogated by a hand-held reader, signal back to the device to verify authenticity. Taggants can be incorporated in various parts of the package, such as the label, container and shrink band, to provide several layers of security.

Most packaging security experts advise using multiple layers of overt and/or covert security to protect products and brands. "We encourage layering, because it increases the difficulty of replicating the package," says Earle Ingalls, vice president of marketing and sales with Document Security Systems Inc. (www.documentsecurity.com), Rochester, N.Y.

Document Security Systems' AuthentiGuard VeriGlow technology inherently offers two levels of covert security. The package or label is printed using invisible security ink and at the same time encoded with hidden graphics or text. A special light source is used to detect the security ink's glow, and a handheld decoder lens reveals the hidden message.

Another approach is the company's AuthentiGuard Prism technology, in which a hidden image or message is printed on the package or label. The covert information cannot be seen with the naked eye; a proprietary hand-held verifier lens is needed to view the information and verify authenticity. If the label is photocopied, the hidden image is not duplicated.

'Step one in security defense'

Global statistics on the growth of food counterfeiting are scarce, but a report from the European Commission of the European Union (EU) shows EU customs personnel seized 4.4 million counterfeit "foodstuffs, alcoholic and other drinks" in 2004. This represented an increase of about 200 percent over the prior year.

According to news reports from the region, the Nestlé, Lipton and Coca-Cola brands have been particularly hard hit by counterfeiting in Europe; Knorr and Pepsi brands also have been the target of knock-offs in the EU.

Worldwide, some of the most commonly counterfeited food products include nutraceuticals, coffee, baby formula, bottled water, soy sauce and other sauces.

Jacobs brand coffee from Kraft Foods (www.kraft.com), Northfield, Ill., was the target of counterfeiting in Romania in 2002. And Abbott's Similac baby formula was the victim of counterfeiting in the U.S. several years earlier.

"Counterfeiters look for a high degree of brand equity — they pick brand names that everybody recognizes and that command a higher price — combined with ease of faking," says Carolyn Burns, global marketing manager, DuPont Security Solutions (www2.dupont.com/Packaging/en_US/products_services/brand_protection), Wilmington, Del.

In both the Jacobs and Similac episodes, codes on the counterfeit packages were instrumental in identifying the fakes. The counterfeit Jacobs packages were marked with erroneous lot codes and best-before date codes. The counterfeit labels on the fake Similac containers were marked with a non-existent lot code.

Marking primary packaging with some combination of lot code, batch number and/or date is "step one in security defense," says Jack Walsh, sales manager for security print solutions at Videojet Technologies Inc. (www.videojet.com), Wood Dale, Ill. That's true whether the security threat is from counterfeiters, terrorists or tamperers.

Walsh adds that a code "may only look like freshness dating to the consumer, but from the manufacturer's standpoint, it's an insurance policy that they made this on such and such a date," at a specific facility, and as part of a particular lot.

Ballantine Produce was not required to use RFID tags to supply Wal-Mart et al. "As you analyze the data RFID technology provides as your items move through the supply chain, there are obvious food safety, traceability and process opportunities," says the company's IT director.

If a consumer encounters a problem with a product, or if the food processor has reason to believe a batch of its product is either dangerous or doesn't meet regulatory standards, the company can use the package codes to alert distributors, retailers and consumers and to conduct a recall.

Track movement via RFID

Tracking and tracing incoming ingredients and packaging materials and outgoing finished goods have taken on a great deal more significance with the implementation of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002.

Meeting the package-tracking requirements of the act requires comprehensive record-keeping and keen attention to the movement of packaging supplies through the supply chain. RFID technology is well positioned to aid in these activities.

Although security was not the original factor driving an RFID pilot program at Ballantine Produce Co. (www.ballantineproduce.com), Sanger, Calif., the company expects improved safety and security to be one of benefits of the deployment.

"We're getting data back from our retailers that show us the movement of our cases through their supply chain. So if we had to recall those RFID shipments, we could perform a container-level recall," says David Silva, director of information systems at Ballantine.

"It's much more surgical" than a recall without RFID tagging, which "would be more of a pallet-level or lot-level recall," Silva adds. "As you begin to analyze the data RFID technology provides as your items move through the supply chain, there are obvious food safety and traceability opportunities — not only that, but process improvement, especially with time-sensitive products."

Ballantine's pilot program uses RFID tags to track corrugated cases, reusable plastic containers (RPCs) and pallets of peaches and nectarines shipped from its packing facility in Reedley, Calif., to a Wal-Mart distribution center. RFID tagging is not currently mandatory for Ballantine's shipments to Wal-Mart.

Alien Technology Corp. (www.alientechnology.com), Morgan Hill, Calif., supplies Ballantine with passive RFID tags. The tags look like regular labels; however, an RFID chip is attached to the back of each label. According to Silva, the first batch of tags his company purchased cost 40 cents each.

The cost of RFID tags has hindered the use of the technology on primary packaging for food and other low-margin, mass-market products. However, prices are coming down.

"For food packaging, RFID tags are probably three to five years away," says Michael Sheriff, president and CEO of AirGate Technologies (www.airgatetech.com), Allen, Texas. "It depends on the price of tags getting down to where they can do item-level tagging. The holy grail is to get the cost to under five cents per tag, but that's a challenge."

RFID technology also holds security and safety benefits for wineries, distilleries and non-alcoholic beverage producers. RFID can be used to keep track of where all packaging supplies originate, including bottles, cans, closures, labels, cartons, shrink wrap and adhesive.

"What if there were chipped glass? If there was a lawsuit against a winery, it would have a full-on record of where that glass came from," says Kris Curran, the winemaker at Sea Smoke Cellars winery (www.seasmokecellars.com), Lompoc, Calif. Thus, the technology is positioned to meet the business needs of food and beverage producers while at the same time helping them meet the track-and-trace requirements of the Bioterrorism Act.

Currently, Sea Smoke uses an RFID-based system from TagStream Inc. (www.tagstreaminc.com), Goleta, Calif., to track its barrels and to enhance wine making by streamlining data collection.

For now the RFID tags are only on the winery's barrels, but it plans to tag its tanks and the bins used to harvest grapes. "It just makes it easier to follow things through. It's so much easier to have all the information on a computer system," Curran says. Before switching to the RFID system, Sea Smoke used the time-honored method of handwritten notes to track barrels and the fermentation process.



Although many sophisticated anti-counterfeiting technologies are available for food packaging, the container's shape and decoration also can play an important role in securing a brand against knock-offs.

For Abbott's nutritional products, "Our increasing use of plastic packaging with unique designs that are difficult and costly to reproduce provide one level of counterfeit protection," says Abbott's Doug Frazier.

The company also embosses codes on steel can ends to deter counterfeiting. This method offers the additional benefit of deterring fraud associated with altered expiration dates.

Trimspa Inc. (www.trimspa.com), Whippany, N.J., also uses package shape and decoration to thwart counterfeiting of its diet aids and nutritional supplements. Trimspa's package is a seamless aluminum bottle. A portion of the Trimspa logo on the bottle is debossed. Further, the bottle is lithographically printed with an intricate pattern that incorporates a monochrome photographic image.

The bottle also incorporates multiple levels of tamper evidence. Pressure-sensitive film seals the mouth of the bottle, and a shrink band covers the neck and closure. CCL Container (www.cclcontainer.com), Hermitage, Pa., created the Trimspa package.

For any marketer of consumables, the public is the last line of defense against fakes. "Our customers tend to be very observant of changes to our packaging and are a valuable resource in helping to identifying counterfeiters," Frazier says.

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