The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically impacted all industries. The food industry is no exception. Just one year before the pandemic, hopeful projections from Instacart, a leader in online grocery delivery, predicted that one-fifth of American households would be shopping for groceries online within five years.
In the last nine months of 2020, Instacart saw order volumes surge 500 percent, according to CNBC. Digitalcommerce360.com reports that in the United States “sixty-eight percent of consumers ordered groceries online for home delivery between March and late August.” McKinsey & Company projects that 45 percent of consumers intend to continue ordering online post-pandemic.
It’s easy to agree with the broad assertion of Whole Foods Market CEO and co-founder John Mackey, who predicted in a recent Wall Street Journal article that “when things return to normal, there will be a lot of people who don’t go back to shopping in-person.”
This dramatic growth of online grocery shopping, combined with a short-term increase in people stocking up on food, has increased pressure on the industry to keep pace with demand, minimize waste and uphold the highest quality and safety standards. Fortunately, there are tools and high-impact activities within end-of-line packaging and transport preparation that can help food suppliers and distributors meet these challenges.
Signode recognizes that the key to maintaining and ensuring food safety is through the strategic application of technology and advanced materials across complex global supply chains.
Raw and bulk ingredients
The transportation of raw and bulk ingredients is the first leg in the food supply-chain journey. Whether for in-store, food-processing plants or animal feed, some ingredients require special care during transporting and handling. For example, polybags, which are widely used in animal feed, tend to slip on each other when stacked. One innovative solution to avoid spillage and loss is using water-based adhesives, such as Signode’s Lock N’ Pop adhesive.
This cold-applied adhesive doesn’t leave behind a sticky residue or cause tearing during unstacking. The adhesive is water-soluble, and its application equipment requires minimal maintenance. It is also formulated with FDA-approved ingredients, so it can be applied to ambient as well as refrigerated or frozen goods.
Animal feed packers, flour millers and other grain-based product producers often use Lock N’ Pop adhesive to eliminate film altogether. This improves airflow and eliminates condensation risks, which increases shelf life and helps impede mold formation.
Sometimes a combination of solutions is required to achieve optimal results. For example, Lock N’ Pop adhesive is widely used in conjunction with film. Ultimately, many factors contribute to food safety and are largely dependent on the type of food produced, as well as its distribution channels. Consider the vast differences in packaging needs related to transportation of perishable versus non-perishable goods. While food contamination and damage can occur at any level, optimized packaging solutions help food products arrive at their destinations safe and secure.
Consumer food products
Once the raw ingredients have traveled safely to the store shelves or food processor, things get more complicated. For instance, consider two high-volume consumer goods—macaroni and cheese and dairy products—and their distinct transportation safety demands driven by differing shelf-life requirements and manufacturing environments.
Handling the millions of mac and cheese boxes rolling off production lines requires the work of more automated load containment systems. Rotary ring technology, like Signode’s Octopus stretch wrapping equipment, is a common solution in these high throughput environments. Signode’s Octopus stretch wrapping equipment can provide more than 200 different wrap patterns and can start and stop anywhere on the pallet, helping to ensure the product is tightly wrapped and that it arrives at its destination safely and uncontaminated.
Dairy must also keep up with equally high demands as millions of gallons of milk are sold daily in the U.S. alone. The difference is these products have much tighter timeframes in terms of processing, packaging, and shipping to preserve shelf life. Speed and reliability are a top concern in this environment. Any machine downtime in the palletizing zone can cause a myriad of problems upstream and greatly affect product shelf life. Having a strapping solution, like those offered by Signode, that can withstand the cold and challenging conditions of a dairy processing plant is critical to maintain shelf life.
Produce takes a different journey, and growers are responsible for ensuring this key ingredient makes it through the supply chain. Corrugated boxes that are typically used for packaging produce are often stored outside in the fields where produce is picked. If these boxes get wet due to exposure outdoors or otherwise, moisture can spread to the produce and leave them vulnerable to mold or bacteria growth.
Stretch hood technology, like Signode’s Lachenmeier stretch hood equipment and patented Xeros film, is ideal in this situation. With the film’s “10-sided” (5 outside surfaces + 5 inside surfaces) waterproof protection, growers can ensure their corrugated containers remain free from moisture before packing. The multi-layer film technology effectively manages sunlight to reduce condensation and creates an impermeable barrier to liquids. The technology also maintains barcode readability and prevents tears or punctures as bags are stretched over the corrugated load.
While Xeros film works great for keeping the produce packaging dry before use once packed additional considerations may need to be considered. Sealing with film can cause moisture to build up on the pallet, which can cause produce to rot or spoil early. To create necessary airflow, many growers will apply edge protection to the stacked pallet and secure the load with plastic strapping. This enables the produce to stay well secured and ventilated during transport. Signode’s edge protection products are made with recycled laminated paper or commingled paper and plastic to provide sturdy corners for strapping or film applications.
For an alternative solution, Lock N’ Pop adhesive can be used when the use of strap and stretch wrap materials needs to be eliminated during shipping, to achieve a similar result and avoid additional packaging material or waste.
Optimization for automation and shelf life
Additional opportunities exist to optimize shelf life and mitigate the management of demand spikes. Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are available to prioritize product picking by expiration date. Signode’s StorFast cart-based AS/RS system is an effective solution. Ideally suited for cold-storage and space limited environments, the modular system automatically tracks and stores items based on shelf life and expiration date.
Even as demand begins to normalize following the recent COVID-19 spike, Signode’s transit-packaging solutions can help to improve operations and increase profit for food producers and manufacturers by helping to reduce spoilage, breakage, and potential for mold growth, thereby increasing shelf life.
Ensuring safety and minimizing food loss work in tandem. A 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the total value of wasted food—in-transit, in-store, and in-home—is more than $160 billion annually. It comprises 133 billion pounds (31 percent) of the 430 billion pounds of food produced in the United States each year.
The report highlights the needed role that technology and material innovations during distribution can play—such as Signode’s Xeros film, Lachenmeier stretch-hood equipment, Octopus stretch wrappers, and Lock N’ Pop adhesive—to reduce total food waste.