Food fraud and digitalization are trending topics

Whether it’s responding to concerns about plastic waste, improving labelling accuracy or making the most of advances in automation and data-exchange, 2019 is going to be an interesting year for the food sector.

This article considers the six top trends that look set to transform the way food is made, packaged and inspected during the year ahead.

1. Clear and consistent labels – a matter of life and death

The importance of accurate and informative labelling has been brought into sharp focus recently following several high-profile cases of severe allergic reaction to certain types of foodstuffs. These incidents have led to calls for greater consistency and more extensive listing of allergens on food labels, which would in turn require more rigorous quality controls for monitoring the accuracy of food labels. This is likely to be delivered through the introduction of stricter food labelling laws across Europe in 2019.

For the food sector, more detailed labelling is likely to lead to the increased adoption of industrial vision systems. These technologies can check the positioning, content, and print quality of labels, on high-speed lines in real-time. More recently, vision system capability has been upgraded for the inspection of challenging inkjet-printed labels and markings made up of discrete dots, which represents one of the primary methods of applying variable information on food. The latest technology has the ability to compensate for distortion due to movement on the production line or uneven surfaces, making vision systems more accurate. Also, multi-line reading capabilities allow the machines to quickly process images and keep up with ever-increasing production speeds.

2. Sustainability – finding solutions to the problem of plastic

The war on plastic continues unabated, with the European Parliament having voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the union in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans. This is likely to lead to a ban on plastic cutlery and plates, cotton buds, straws and drink-stirrers by 2021, while also calling for a dramatic reduction in single-use plastic for food and drink containers like plastic cups. France, meanwhile, is accelerating its own measures against plastic, with plans to introduce a penalty system in 2019 that would increase the cost of consumer goods with packaging made of non-recycled plastic: a move which forms part of a wider pledge to use only recycled plastic nationwide by 2025.

Food and drink packagers and retailers are therefore likely to continue re-assessing the materials they use as they reconsider their sustainability credentials along the whole supply chain. Increasingly, if companies cannot incorporate recycled plastics – perhaps because polymers don’t extrude well, or there is a loss of aseptic properties – then they could turn to glass, metal or new composite alternatives, such as biodegradable film based on seaweed. Ultimately, it will be important to take a holistic view when considering new material specification. This will include a judgement on the types of technology that will be required to incorporate new materials on to existing packaging lines, and indeed how those new materials can be recycled in a sustainable manner.

3. Food waste – no longer a concern for retailers only

Food waste is a global scandal, with as much as one third of food produced annually for human consumption either lost or wasted. Although the distribution and retail sectors are most profligate, food manufacturers have an important role to play in reducing food waste.
Increasingly, food and drink processors are looking to use technology to support the streamlining of processes throughout food production. This is being driven by the use of more effective product inspection technologies, which benefit from increased levels of automation, more accurate software algorithms, and more reliable detection sensitivity.

Advances in x-ray inspection technology, for instance, can be applied to reduce the amount of false rejection of good product. Instead of removing a full belt width of product when a contaminant is detected, the latest x-ray systems use air nozzles to target an individual, non-conforming item – limiting waste. Also, more controllable removal methods mean a higher percentage of rejects can be re-worked instead of being thrown away.
Highly accurate and reliable checkweighing systems, meanwhile, can be used to ensure that products are not being overfilled – eliminating product giveaway.
The war on food waste will continue in 2019. Investment in product inspection technologies enables manufacturers to minimize the contributing factors of contamination, non-conformance and spoilage.

4. Food packaging – luminous colours and 3D textures

The proliferation of packaging styles shows no signs of abating. Customer demand for ‘something different’ is encouraging trends such as customized batch production, with retailers experimenting with innovative finishes and textures as a means of catching the eye. This has led to the introduction of some technically-challenging packaging such as iridescent French Fry containers and toothpaste boxes, and heavily textured drink cans that feel noticeably uneven to the touch. These trends are likely to lead to the adoption of more flexible product inspection equipment, with the same machine able to inspect a wide range of different packaging formats and product set-ups, with the shortest changeover time.

The challenge, also, is to embrace packaging innovation while ensuring safety and conformity. Packaging material can have a marked impact on product inspection, with some metalized films contributing to a phenomenon known as product effect. This makes it harder for metal detectors to identify smaller contaminants in the product inside. So, while the introduction of novel packaging styles will continue to be used by the food and drink sector in 2019 as a means of ensuring customer appeal, increasing consideration will need to be given to the correct specification of inspection equipment to ensure both safety and productivity.

5. Digitalization – real-time visibility of production conditions

The move towards more connected, data-driven food and drink production and packaging plants is set to rapidly accelerate, as companies look apply greater levels of automation to become leaner and more efficient. According Research and Market’s Food Automation Market – Global Opportunity and Industry Forecast report, the sector is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 7.1% to 2022, to $11.5 billion, as food producers and distributors look to raise profit and provide the customers with the improved quality of the product.
This drive to digitalization is allowing organizations to collate and interpret meaningful data from across plant operations. This data can provide real-time status information about the manufacturing and packaging process, including the status of devices and products.
For example, improved connectivity is enabling checkweighers to automatically adjust filling machine settings. Data on product rejects is much easier to export and evaluate, allowing quality indicators to be shared with customers. In addition, emulation techniques enable remote performance monitoring and settings adjustment for product changeovers, improving efficiency.
Food and drink companies are increasingly employing digitalization to support operation management in keeping production running, avoiding downtime and planning repair at the right time. Ultimately, the application of digital technology will continue to act as the primary enabler of food manufacturers looking to apply Industry 4.0 principles.

6. Technological solutions to food fraud

As global food supply has grown in complexity, it has become harder for food producers and retailers to guarantee the provenance of their products. In recent years, there have been numerous incidents of food tampering in the supply chain, with unscrupulous individuals and organizations watering down products or bulking them up with unauthenticated ingredients. Sadly, this type of food fraud has become a global issue, causing financial and reputational damage to food and drink manufacturers and retailers, and putting the safety of consumers at risk.

There is hope, though, in the form of serialization and track & trace techniques, which have proved highly effective in combatting fraud in other industries like pharmaceuticals. In the food industry, investment has been limited historically to high value items like caviar, where producers use a universal labelling system to prove authenticity. However, continuing concerns over food fraud and safety, coupled with the increasing desire for consumers to know where their food is coming from, are likely to make track and trace far more common.
Blockchain, meanwhile, will continue to find more use-cases in the food sector, primarily as a means of providing greater trust in the farm-to-fork food chain. Recent scandals over horsemeat and melamine-spiked milk have dented consumer trust, and blockchain provides an effective method of monitoring food through what can be lengthy supply networks, ensuring its source of origin and that it has not been tampered with en-route.

2018 saw some high-profile applications of blockchain. The Food Standards Agency successfully completed a pilot using the technology in a cattle slaughterhouse, representing the first time it had been used as a regulatory tool to ensure compliance in the food sector. The next action will be for further work to replicate this in other plants.
It’s clearly a global trend. Only a few weeks ago, the Dairy Farmers of America announced a blockchain trial with data specialist ripe-io, aimed at increasing supply chain transparency and better connecting farm owners with customers.

Expect 2019 to deliver a rapid growth in the number of blockchain applications around the world.

Learn how to unravel the complexities of confirmity in packaged food