KANSAS CITY - COVID has driven home the importance of food safety to consumers, and few areas are as poised to make lasting progress in this arena as the packaging industry.

Food safety has always been a tenet of single-use foodservice packaging, said Natha Dempsey, president of the Falls Church, Va.-based Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI). In fact, it was born out of contagious disease prevention.

“The focus on keeping food safe and sanitary has always been a part of our story,” Dempsey said. “Current trends have focused on offering customers even more reassurance that their food or beverage is safe and secure.”

Tamper-evident or tamper-resistant packaging has become even more visible throughout the past year, she said. Other methods being used to seal or secure food and drinks are starting to appear on the market, such as film or seals being applied by operators or retailers to their prepared products to reinforce safety and security for customers.

Food safety is always a primary factor when designing new products, Dempsey said.

“It’s built into the DNA of design, beginning with what manufacturers need to comply with to meet the requirements for food contact materials. Foodservice packaging materials are evaluated by regulatory agencies such as the U.S. FDA and Health Canada to ensure materials meet stringent safety standards.”

Furthermore, she added, performance is key for foodservice operators when it comes to packaging — and a huge part of performance is ensuring that products are safe.

Making packaging as safe as possible can present design challenges, including making packaging harder to open. But that can also be seen as a positive, Dempsey pointed out.

“We want it to be more difficult for someone who isn’t supposed to touch or eat that food to do so,” she said.

That said, tamper evident and resistant packaging has definitely evolved in the direction of “easy to use.” When FPI polls its foodservice operator community each year, in its State of the Foodservice Packaging Industry Survey, on what the most important attributes of their foodservice packaging products are, ease of use for employees behind the counter and ease of use for consumers always rank high.

The pandemic has heightened food safety awareness in various sectors - the media, operators/retailers, consumers themselves. But Dempsey said it can’t be stated often enough that food safety has always been a top-of-mind issue for foodservice packaging manufacturers and suppliers.

And moving forward, into whatever “new normal” awaits the retail food industry, Dempsey believes that there will continue to be more innovation around food safety.

Tamper-evident and tamper-resistant packaging was already making major inroads into the packaging world prior to the pandemic, thanks to the rise of delivery. With the safety concerns driven by the pandemic, Dempsey thinks that will only accelerate post-pandemic.

And looking specifically at deli prepared offerings in supermarket perimeters, foodservice packaging has become more prominent in bakery and deli spaces, she added.

“I think we will continue to see packaging evolve, perhaps even specifically for those sections of the store.”

Store safety and hygiene to the fore

The top trend Hartsville, S.C.-based Novolex has seen from among its customers in the age of COVID is the prioritization of safety and hygiene in grocery stores, said Paul Frantz, the company’s president of Food & Delivery. 

“While those have always been a top priority at Novolex when it comes to our product offerings, increasingly our customers are looking not only for products that truly decrease the spread of germs, but also communicate to consumers and employees that they are committed to their community’s health,” he said. 

In recent months, for example, Novolex has seen demand spike for the company’s anti-microbial coating on the inside of the snack product packaging it produces. The coating keeps food sanitary while also allowing certain snacks to stay fresh for longer periods of time. 

Novolex has also seen increased demand for individualized packaged food at hot, salad and olive bars with its Blaze line of rigid plastic packaging and tamper-evident seals on bakery and other fresh items.  

“COVID has turned the world upside down, but our company has pivoted quickly to meet changing demands and diversify our portfolio because we founded our business on three core tenets: innovation, choice and sustainability,” Frantz said. “We are a company that exists to listen and respond, and in the past few months, we’ve become more like consultants than simply product salespeople – we need to understand how customers have been affected and propose product solutions they may not have needed from us before.”  

Health and safety have always—and will always—be the first consideration for Novolex when it comes to food packaging, regardless of current trends, Frantz said. COVID has simply made Novolex’s top concern one that is now shared by both its customers and their consumers. 

Novolex’s Cutlerease was originally designed as a single-piece cutlery utensil dispensing system to help curb waste in cafeteria and dining hall environments.

But it also serves a dual purpose in cutting down on the number of hands that might touch a fork or knife before the consumer withdraws it from the dispenser. 

Frantz said Novolex has also seen increased demand for grab-and-go packaging with its 

Atrium line of packaging in schools to ensure safety in dining halls and cafeterias. 

Novolex expects that the demand for tamper-proof packaging will continue well beyond the pandemic. 

“With grocery stores and food service establishments, there has been greater emphasis placed on tamper-evident packaging that is still convenient and effective for take-out,” Frantz said. “Such packaging also builds confidence in food safety and hygiene for consumers who use local food delivery services.”  

Also expect food delivery to be a mainstay, he added. We’ve all relied on and grown accustomed to this convenience and safe dining option. 

Novolex’s Blaze line of hot and cold food containers allow retailers to transport their food in safe and sanitary packaging. 

“When customers take a bite of their food, it will taste just like it does when they are sitting in the dining room of their favorite restaurant,” he said.   

Another trend sure to continue post-COVID is demand for pre-packaged and individually packaged foods in grocery stores among consumers who have reported feeling safer eating grab-and-go meals with each item individually packaged, Frantz said.

“We’ve seen a fall in ‘fill in/build your own’ meals and a rise in consumer in grab-and-go meals,” he said. “Our to-go bags allow foodservice providers to package both hot and cold food in sealed containers. Consumers will then be able to see their food before purchasing it with our Dubl View Deli Bags and Insulated Deli Bags as they did pre-COVID, while still being confident their food is sanitary.”  

One challenge Novolex and other packaging suppliers face is helping to ensure its customers are still able to reach their sustainability goals while prioritizing food safety. 

“Many of our products are recyclable, and we encourage customers to utilize the How2Recycle label when appropriate,” Frantz said. “This standardized labeling system clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public. In addition, we help our customers with their sustainability goals by offering an extensive product line of compostable food packaging products through our Eco-Products brand.”  

Another challenge designers face is applying a tamper-evident feature to rigid plastic food packaging. At Novolex, designers must ensure that the tamper-evident features satisfy the needs of both the customer and the company’s internal operations partners that need to run these increasingly complex products, Frantz said.  

A packaging “revolution”

With the pandemic looming globally for over a year now, consumers and retailers have become acutely aware of the importance of food safety, said Cindy Blish, associated brand and communications manager for Shelton, Conn.-based Inline Plastics.

Food safety and packaging has undergone a revolution in recent years. As Blish points out, just 15 years ago, the tamper-evident clamshell market did not exist (Inline Plastics created it). Today, the use of tamper-evident containers is a must to maintain consumer confidence.

“Creating that new market back then put Inline in a great position to offer endless options with the patented Safe-TFresh technology to retailers and processors,” Blish said. “The line grows every year. We continue to extend existing product lines and launch new ones, designing shapes, sizes and technologies in response to current and future market needs.”

When self-service salad bars and buffet merchandising became a casualty of the pandemic (and it’s anyone’s guess when they will fully come back), retailers began to prepare pre-packaged options, which, as Blish pointed out, can be almost limitless in variety.

Because of the huge new need among retailers to find new, creative ways to show different types of snacking and meal options, Inline developed new multi-compartment containers, also known as ‘bento boxes’, that allow for versality with many new and different food combinations.

For example, a sandwich that was previously packaged alone now includes the option to include apple slices, crackers or other items.

“There are also countless additional developments in the pipeline with our teams excited to bring solutions to our customers,” Blish said. “Food safety continues to be the main topic of conversation throughout this COVID-19 era. Virtually nothing is more top of mind.”

Beyond the changes at the grocery store where the need to supply pre-packed foods continues, restaurants, take-out and delivery have further increased the need for safe, secure packaging that is robust and will travel well, as the packaging will change hands any number of times.