LABEL KNOW-HOW: NEW TECHNOLOGIES FOR STRICTER CONTROLS
Labels provide consumers with very important information to guarantee that they can safely consume foods.
It may sound trivial, but errors or lack of information on labels can have serious consequences, not only for the reputation of the company, but also for the entire production lot, causing grave damage to the producer or vendor, despite the fact that the food’s quality and safety are guaranteed.
We discussed this with Andrea Artoni, Quality Manage for Conad [an Italian supermarket chain], whose work is to raise companies’ awareness of this topic to prevent the withdrawal of compliant lots and the consequent waste of food.
Why must producers take utmost care when it comes to the compliance of labels?
Labels provide consumers with very important information to guarantee that they can safely consume foods; much of this information is mandatory by law. A lot of information is pre-printed at the source, when the label is printed. All the user, namely the producer, has to do is check the incoming lot when they receive the labels from their printer (i.e. check that they conform to specifications). There are, however, other types of information that, instead, are affixed by the producer at the time of use, directly in line. There are many variables that can interfere with the printing of or checking of this information during the stages of production; we are trying to categorise the various cases, so that we can train and prevent. All it takes is small errors or a moment of distraction or a malfunction of the packaging machine and we can have unsuitable labels that, in the worst case scenario, can lead to the withdrawal of the entire lot, despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the product’s quality. Here’s an example: not having the expiry date on the label, due to a misalignment of the packs on the line or a short-lived malfunction of the system that prints the label. The expiry date will not be missing from every pack. However, on the one hand, we cannot risk having a product placed on the market without this information, and, on the other hand, we cannot open hundreds of cartons and check every pack, one by one. As a consequence, the lot must be withdrawn and returned to the producer. In other cases, the entire label or the barcode may be missing, or the expiry date may be different on the product and the secondary packaging. All these cases may appear, systematically and randomly, within one single production operation and are not easily identified once the product has been packaged and sent to us. Our aim must be to reduce the risk that such costly accidents happen.
Technology has made great leaps forward. Do you think that it can help agri-food companies?
Yes, nowadays technology can be a great help in the automation of this type of checks and, therefore, in preventing many of these cases. These checks must be integrated and flexible, depending on the type of product, and they must adapt to the company’s various needs. Mandatory information is located on different parts of a bottle, a food bag or a tray, on various media and materials. Compared to the past, there are many more types and forms of packaging; we must, therefore, now more than ever, ensure that the presence of the mandatory information is checked. If, due to a change in packaging, the medium that the expiry date is printed on changes, the company must verify the compatibility of the material with the ink, so that the colours do not fade and the data does not become illegible. This can also be the case with particular packaging where the label with the mandatory data is at the bottom of the pack and cannot, therefore, be inspected during boxing or when the products are placed on the shelves. This is why it is increasingly important to adopt automated systems that check the presence/absence of the label and that also verify that the right information has been printed.
Which initiatives do you think could be useful for raising awareness among companies concerning the need for label checking?
Label checking is a qualitative objective that we pursue with companies, so that we can explain to them the various cases we encounter in which a label is unsuitable, aiming to make them aware of the various risks and enable them to prevent them. The first opportunity to do so will arise in the second half of the year: Ft System, a company that carries out checks and inspections in the food and beverage sector, has invited me to do a presentation on this very topic. I will start with the actual defects that we encounter in our company. The event will then go on to discuss the regulatory framework, because it is important that we are also familiar with the legal consequences of non-compliance. It will conclude with the technological solutions that are available today and that help prevent and reduce the risk. This is the first important step towards opening a dialogue with agri-food companies, so that we may grow together and safeguard product quality.