Testing is the key to traceability in the packaging supply chain

By Freddie Pierce
The food supply chain has been a hot topic recently, with the horsemeat scandal creating a whirlwind of interest in an area which before had ticked alo...

The food supply chain has been a hot topic recently, with the horsemeat scandal creating a whirlwind of interest in an area which before had ticked along without very much attention at all. With more people now questioning what is in products they are picking up from their local retailer, every part of the global network is being scrutinised to analyse where improvements can be made.

Retailers are always aiming to offer their customers the best value on food products to gain the upper hand on their competitors, but the financial squeeze has resulted in tighter margins within the supply chain. The issue which the horsemeat scandal has flagged up is the lack of traceability throughout the supply chain, meaning consumers are not fully aware of what they are buying.

By scrutinising an already pressurised environment, there are worries that slack processes could lead to further scandals rather than offering a cost-effective solution.

The time for action is now

Traceability within the UK’s supply chains can be achieved with more stringent testing on our food produce.  But testing should not be isolated to food alone.  The complexity of the chain also includes packaging, so both consumers and industry must trust the packaging supply chain, as well as the produce itself.

Trust encompasses a number of factors; however the most important element for the packaging supply chain list is traceability.  It eliminates the guesswork of plastic packaging supply, using a factual approach, combined with extensive industry experience. 

Quality assurance

A number of plastics packaging manufacturers are using high tech testing laboratories, enabling them to assure the quality of the packaging which passes through their plants.

This approach not only facilitates traceability, but can directly improve the produce found within the network. For example, the introduction of new technologies such as anti-microbial packaging highlights the potential testing and control laboratories have.

Such innovation could be priceless in the food market supply chain, as issues which have plagued the network could be eradicated. Campylobacter, the bacteria found in fresh chicken, red meat, untreated water and unpasteurised milk, is an example of an issue which has plagued the UK food network. This particular bacterium contaminates those who comes into contact with it and was directly responsible for more than 371,000 cases of food poisoning in 2009 and resulted in 88 deaths in England and Wales alone.

As consumer safety must be the number one concern in all global supply chains, any form of testing which offers innovative solutions to such obvious problems need to be looked at in-depth.

Andrew Copson, managing director at Sharpak, a thermo-forming company which has its own UK approval laboratory, says, “It’s important that we provide a safe product with integrity that the consumer can be confident in. The laboratory offers an environment in which our innovative plastic packaging can evolve in a cost-effective manor; eliminating the guesswork in the supply chain by combining vast experience with a factual, scientific approach to quality control.”

Lab testing results in transparency

Sharpak’s laboratory is responsible for taking delivery of the raw materials required for the creation of their plastic packaging products, and this is severely tested to guarantee quality before it is allowed to enter the building.

Copson explains the importance of testing packaging materials to guarantee not only the highest quality, but also the under-pinning of integrity within packaging’s space within the retail food supply chain is achieved.

“We want our customers, and by extension their customers, to be confident in the provenance of our products.  The lab testing regimes that we employ are key to this.

For example, Sharpak’s business at Yate receives “several hundred” deliveries of primary raw material a year and each of these is checked thoroughly before they are even allowed to leave the delivery trucks and enter the property. If the plastic which is delivered does not meet the required standards then it is sent back.

Copson comments, “By refusing materials which do not meet the standards required, we are improving the quality of the packaging supply chain.

“If we allowed plastic to be processed without meeting the necessary standards it is likely that the repercussions would not be realised until the product is on the shelves, potentially a very costly mistake in terms of both short term financial issues and long term reputation.”

Are testing laboratories creating a sustainable future?

This type of laboratory clearly does vital work within the packaging supply chain to guarantee not only the quality of the products which pass through their doors, but also in helping the plastic packaging distributed throughout the supply chain evolves to meet the consumer’s needs.

The question of cost is one which is bound to be raised, but regardless of this, testing which equates to increased consumer trust in the supply chain is something which must be investigated.

With multi-national companies such as Tesco warning that the price of meat is likely to be raised to allow for testing of the meat produce they stock at a cost of£2million, companies may be hesitant to ring the changes and spend heavily on state of the art testing facilities. However, with the results Sharpak’s laboratory have had already and the issues currently facing the supply chain, is it wise to put a price on consumer peace-of-mind?

According to Copson, the packaging industry has seen huge improvements, which it has not always shouted about as loudly as it could: “Over the years, the plastic packaging industry has made huge steps in product innovation, efficiency in the supply chain, recycling and ensuring there is very good value for money.

“On top of all this, a focus for Sharpak is to ensure that our element of the packaging supply chain is traceable, providing peace of mind with consistency in supply, something which is especially important in today’s food environment.”

Whether such laboratories are used across the entire food market or if another solution is found; it is clear that there is no ‘quick fix’.  The testing of food products and associated materials within the supply chains is vital to ensure the industry continues to evolve and consumers trust in the products they are buying.


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