Is Safety the New Sustainability for Food Packaging?

The headline for this article—Is Safety the New Sustainability for Food Packaging?—probably is a pretty provocative question to anyone working in the packaging space. For many years now, sustainability has rightfully been the key driver for material suppliers and food packaging manufacturers as they worked to help major brand owners achieve aggressive 2025 sustainability goals for their packaging.

Sustainability has been a key focus of G&S Business Communications’ work over the past decade with the Flexible Packaging Association. We’ve helped the industry’s leading packaging advocate to communicate the many lifecycle benefits of flexible packaging, including transportation efficiency, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, less water and energy usage in manufacturing, and less material used overall, which results in less waste at end of life. Advantages such as safety, extended shelf life, and consumer convenience are certainly highlighted in industry conversations as well, but not always to the same degree.

To be clear: We absolutely expect that sustainability will continue to be a key driver for packaging. But in the wake of COVID-19, packagingsafetyjust might rise to the same level of importance.

Chicago-based McKinsey & Company recently examined this topic in an article entitled “Shaping the next normal of packaging beyond COVID-19.” According to McKinsey, an “enhanced focus on hygiene and food safety is likely to become an element of the next normal and a high priority for both consumers and packaging customers,” joining cost, performance, and convenience as everyday considerations when developing packaging solutions.

McKinsey’s prediction about food safety lines up with the results of a “Consumer Intelligence Snap Poll” fielded by G&S in April. We asked adult Americans about how their consumption behaviors and perceptions of the food supply chain changed as a direct result of the coronavirus. From food safety and quality to availability and affordability, people are beginning to think differently about where their food comes from and how it gets to them. Here are some of the highlights:

Food Fears

Compared to a few months ago, most Americans say they are more concerned about food availability (77%), food safety (69%), food affordability (58%), food waste (55%), and food quality (52%).

In addition to those staggering results, over half of Americans (54%) say they are at least somewhat concerned about contracting the coronavirus through the food they eat, while nearly two thirds (66%) were at least somewhat concerned about contracting the virus through food packaging, according to the April poll.

Consumers are taking extraordinary measures to clean or otherwise ensure the safety of their food. Forty-seven percent of Americans say they are spending more time washing their products when they return home from the store. Meanwhile, 44% say they are cleaning food packaging with disinfectant.

Survey participants feel that people and organizations across the food supply chain should share responsibility for communicating response measures to the public. More specifically, stakeholders across the food industry should proactively communicate the actions they are taking to secure a safe and quality food supply, including grocery stores (83%), restaurants (75%), food processing facilities (68%), food packaging companies (66%), food shipping companies (56%), and farms and ranches (45%). The results suggest that people are ready to see beyond typical consumer-facing information from stewards along the supply chain, indicating a growing awareness of the journey their food takes from farm to fork.

Consumers want clarity and reassurance. Ninety-five percent of Americans agree it is at least somewhat important for companies to communicate the safety measures they are taking to ensure customer safety. Further upstream, consumers say they would feel reassured about food safety if they learned about safety protocols put in place at grocery stores (74%), at food processing facilities (70%), food transport and storage (57%), and on farms (41%). A majority (65%) of Americans say that research indicating that food and packaging are unlikely to spread the coronavirus would also prove reassuring.

Communication and transparency are essential. Sixty-six percent of those polled say stakeholders in the food packaging industry should proactively communicate the actions they are taking to secure a safe and quality supply.

A More Flexible Future

According to McKinsey, a byproduct of increased safety awareness will be a greater onus on brand owners to track supply chains more closely than before. This will require not only real-time reporting and analytics, but packaging options that can be better integrated with these technologies.

Flexible packaging can be enhanced by a host of new technologies such as integrated circuits, moisture and oxygen control capabilities, and even augmented reality options, making it an ideal packaging choice to deal with the “next normal.”

In the near-term, the entire packaging supply chain should continue to help share the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that help consumers understand how to appropriately handle food products and food packaging during this pandemic.

Over the longer-term, though, when faced with uncertainty and ongoing health worries, consumers’ emphasis on food and packaging safety will endure well after stay-at-home orders have faded, notes FPA’s President and CEO Alison Keane.

“COVID-19 will create a lasting change in how we shop, our buying habits, and the overall retail experience,” Keane says. “Post-pandemic, consumers will choose food items, packaging types, and brands that, above all else, help them feel safe. Advantages like the sterility and technological integration of flexible packaging will certainly come to the forefront.”

Brian Hall is the managing director at G&S Business Communications in Chicago.