Amid the current climate of increased security fears, food packaging has never been more important. Retailers and manufacturers alike are eager to take advantage of improvements in tamper-proof packaging in order to ensure products reach the consumer in perfect condition. David Kosub reports on the issue of packaging integrity.

While retailers agree you can’t check every product in your store to see if it’s faulty or has been tampered with, there are signs to watch for. Dead giveaways are caps that aren’t on tight, breaks, cracks or holes in the outer or inner wrapping or protective cover or seal, and outer or inner coverings that appear to have been disturbed, unwrapped or replaced. Other signs a package may not be holding up are less obvious.

“If a product has a square shoulder or anything that’s protruding from the basic structure,” says Anne Reeves, a partner with Shimokochi-Reeves, a brand identity and package design firm in Los Angeles, “it’s going to be more easily damaged and consumers do not like to buy damaged goods.”

Take a close look at jam jars, says Troy Archibald, general manager for Thrifty Kitchens in Victoria, British Columbia. If the centre of the jam jar top appears to have lifted that’s because the jar’s vacuum seal created at the end of the cooking process has been broken. “Either it wasn’t sealed properly where it was made or someone’s opened it up, maybe to look at it or smell it.” Archibald purchases pre-pack containers for Thrifty’s line of home replacement meals and looks for containers that are both tamper and shatter proof. He’s particularly impressed by Superfos packaging.

“If you look at the way the container is made it’s virtually impossible to get your finger in there unless you have a knife or something to pry it off with. The seal will break.”

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Cereal boxes particularly vulnerable

Typically, meat cut in US and Canadian supermarkets is sealed at wrapping machines in extra tight cellophane. Staff at Save-Mart in Modesto, California look for slits in the cellophane or attempts by people to unwrap and then re-wrap the meat. That’s not always apparent until you turn the meat over, says Jim Pucci, Save-Mart’s director of risk management and food safety.

“You can tell sometimes from the leakage as well. It’s rare, but if there is any leakage I would look to see if it’s compromised.”

Dry goods packaging, notably cereal boxes, are especially vulnerable to defects and tampering and it’s not always readily apparent upon first glance, says Pucci. A knife, for example, can be easily inserted through the seams of most cereal boxes to puncture the inner lining so that something may be inserted to compromise the product. “To the untrained eye you’d never notice it, especially underneath at the bottom. Because when people open it, they open it from the top.” Since the 9/11 attacks in New York, specially trained staff at Save-Mart’s 123 stores routinely travel the aisles looking for precisely these kinds of defects.

Many packages are made from PET plastics, which are biodegradable and fit the environmental friendly image of natural health products. The trouble is, they’re nowhere near as durable as standard HPDE packaging. So, do you go with something that’s not super strong or with something that’s less environmentally safe? The retailer’s philosophy and the sensitivities of consumers will largely dictate the answer.

Warehouses keep an eye out

For most retailers, however, package integrity begins in the warehouse. Irregular shaped cases, cuts in boxes of cereal, oozing of liquid product onto the pallet – it’s all targeted by warehouse receivers, says Boob Cool, warehouse manager for Thrifty Foods in Victoria, British Columbia. “Generally we can’t catch it sometimes until we get through the pallet, because the hidden damage might be a case in the middle of a pallet, but certainly the receiving crew is trained to make sure that they visualise everything that comes in.”

Steve Fells, assistant director of Save-Mart’s distribution centre agrees. “We look for any visual signs of damage whether it be through transit or leakage. Items that are plainly defective are pulled out at point of receipt and our normal procedure is to refuse any damaged product at point of receipt.”

“You have to be carefully about anything that’s above and out of the routine,” says Aron Bjornson, marketing manager for Capers Community Markets in Vancouver, British Columbia. “You have to be extra careful about imports, for example.” Dawn Rodriguez, sales and marketing manager for US-based Aurora Group points to a line of Druid health products from Canada that are popular, but have no safety seals. “In fact, they don’t have anything, so we pay extra attention to that.”

Poor quality labels can also affect package integrity. Labels without a proper laminate and poorly stored not only fade as the bottles rub up against each other during shipping but also expose the package material beneath the label to potential damage.

Tamper-proof seals

A major concern for retailers is product tampering in their health and beauty sections. Most manufacturers use tamper evident types of packaging, which can range from PVC safety seal bands around the caps and necks of bottles, foil induction seals under the cap and tamper evident hinge guard caps to full safety seals around both the bottle and cap, and even boxes.

Of these, foil induction seals under the caps are the most effective because they won’t adhere to the bottle lip once they’re pulled off. That makes it very evident that the seal has been tampered with. Other signs that a product may have been tampered with include:

  • A plastic or tight-fitting wrap around the top of the bottle appears distorted or stretched, as though it had been rolled down and then put back into place.

  • Bits of paper or glue are stuck on the rim of the container, making it seem as if the container once had a bottle seal.

  • The expiration date, lot number and other information aren’t the same on both the container and its outer wrapping or box.

The bottom line, says Tom Dominick, vice president of food safety and sanitation at Bashas Supermarkets in Arizona, is that everyone plays a part in package integrity, from the manufacturer to distribution centres and store level receiving staff to the cashier who routinely opens up egg cartons to make sure none are broken – and yes, even customers themselves.

“Hopefully, with that number of people being involved in the chain, things won’t slip through because you have so many eyes on the lookout.”