KANSAS CITY, MO. -- Demand for tamper-evident packaging in grocery fresh perimeter departments was on the rise even before the pandemic. Now it’s in the stratosphere — due in large part to the explosion in food delivery — and packaging manufacturers and their retail partners are meeting the demand with new products and solutions.

Pre-COVID, demand could be chalked up to increases in the delivery and grab-and-go sectors, said Natha Dempsey, president of the Falls Church, Va.-based Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI).

With the rise of concepts like third-party delivery, where food is delivered by someone other than a restaurant operation, extra assurance in the quality and safety of food became a more present thought. 

Then came COVID. How food was packaged became even more important — not only for performance (i.e. keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold), but also for ensuring that food made it to consumers in the most sanitary manner, with the least touchpoints possible.

“We saw packaging lines with tamper-evident or tamper-resistant items expand to larger and smaller sizes, or different shapes to accommodate more products,” Dempsey said. “Throughout the pandemic, and now as we move into the post-COVID world, delivery and curbside sectors remain in high demand.”

In recent years, the industry has seen more stickers, seals and labels that would help indicate any sort of tampering to the package or product, Dempsey said.

In the past several years, global demand for tamper-evident packaging has risen, driven by growing markets and more educated consumers, said Jeff Rebh, president and CEO of Innoseal Systems Inc., whose US headquarters are in Charlotte, N.C.

The company’s Professional Innoseal Solution is a tamper-evident bag-closing system that uses a resealable tape and paper combination to seal products for a variety of industries. It’s most widely used in retail grocery fresh perimeter departments.

“Consumers are increasingly aware of changes in the world and food safety is paramount,” Rebh said. “Our approach is unique in that tamper evident sealing systems are our primary design focus and core competency.” 

While its Professional Innoseal Solution is the product most widely used in the perimeter, Innoseal’s L Sealer Solution is also used in perimeter departments for retailers looking for larger bags for bulk areas.  

Among the trends in the tamper-evident packaging space is an increase in demand for flexibles and simplicity, and consumers choosing packaged over bulk for fear of contamination. 

To keep up with these trends, Innoseal is in constant conversation with its customers about what new solutions they’re looking for.

One example is Innoseal’s Inno-Box, which includes 20 Sets of Innoseal’s X-Refill with one free X-Sealer. Inside the box is a DIY assembly kit for building the box.

One thing that disappeared immediately in supermarkets during the pandemic were bulk bins and “you pick it” areas, Rebh said.  Stores were creating ready to go packages for consumers so that it minimized direct access to the product. 

“A level of anxiety took over as we worked through the pandemic,” he said. “The thought going through everyone’s mind was, ‘Who touched this apple or cucumber before me?’ Wasn’t that the elephant in the room for all of us?” 

Restaurant and grocery home delivery skyrocketed during the pandemic, and with it came a new layer of food safety-related anxiety. According to a 2019 US Foods survey, 28% of drivers admitted to eating food from deliveries. That’s where companies like Innoseal come in, Rebh said.

“Consumers have a raised level of awareness to food safety and tamper-evident packaging is now expected. I still believe that a level of anxiety exists and will continue.  How do we make the consumer comfortable again?”

Focusing on the seal, not the package

Delaware, Ohio-based InnoPak LLC tries to think of tamper-evident differently, said Nathan Schultz, the company’s creative director.

“Most everything that would be delivered or carried out comes in a bag, so why does every package that goes into that bag have to be tamper evident?” Schultz said. “All that really needs to be done is to secure the bag those packages come in.”

If you secure the bag, you secure all the food inside it, he added. That’s how InnoPak came up with its Handle Cuffs tamper-evident bag seals. The product’s sleeves seal the entire bag shut, gusset and all, and can be used with almost any rope handle or flat handle bag.

Handle Cuffs, Schultz said, minimize the changes users need to make to their packaging, and they helps keep SKUs to a minimum.

The seals were originally designed for restaurants, but they’re also great in supermarket applications, Schultz said.

“As supermarkets grow their business in the fresh food segment through prepared meals, hot bars, and other areas, we see Handle Cuffs as a solution for anything that would be ordered online or prepared and packed into a bag ahead of time for customer pick-up.”

While InnoPak is currently focusing its efforts on seals rather than tamper-evident packs, the company is currently working on some different grab-and-go packaging options that incorporate tamper-evident features, Schultz said.

COVID definitely drove higher demand for tamper-evident packaging, said Nathan Kraatz, InnoPak marketing specialist. And the company believes that that demand will continue to increase well after the pandemic.

“It brought the issue of food tampering to the forefront, although it was already on many people’s minds,” Kraatz said.

Kraatz cited a US Foods study showing that 85% of restaurant customers want restaurants to use tamper-evident packaging. And that study was conducted before the pandemic. 

Balancing tamper-resistant with freshness

Fifteen years ago, Shelton, Conn.-based Inline Plastics’ R&D team developed its Safe-T-Fresh technology, the first products in what came to be the tamper-evident clamshell market we know today. Inline currently offers more than100 shapes and sizes under the Safe-T-Fresh banner, said Cindy Blish, the company’s associated brand and communications manager.

Among the top criteria for both suppliers and consumers when it comes to packaging has been the need for products that can be trusted to both protect and maintain product freshness and the assurance that the contents are secure from any possible tampering, Blish said.

Over the past several years, Inline has added many new items to the Safe-T-Fresh line to ensure the highest levels of tamper evidence. The durable SquareWare, the upscale PagodaWare and the varied multi-cell SnackWare products are among the latest iterations.

Safe-T-Fresh packaging is used in a wide variety of applications throughout the fresh grocery perimeter, particularly in the produce, deli, seafood and bakery departments, Blish said.

The pandemic has been a game changer, given consumers’ heightened health and safety concerns, Blish said. The demand for safe packaging ultimately turned into the demand for pre-packaged foods.

“Supermarkets and foodservice providers, now more than ever, need packaging that’s ideal for take-out and delivery as consumers’ buying habits have shifted,” she said. “Driven by consumer fears related to the coronavirus, food delivery services have changed throughout the country, and the need for consumer confidence that the food they order will be safe has resulted in an increase in safe tamper-evident packaging.”

Food safety-related habits consumers picked up during the pandemic will likely remain after it’s over, Blish said. Those will include fewer trips to the grocery store more food orders delivered, which translates into higher demand for tamper-evident packaging.

“Consumers will continue to be cautious and have only become more aware of what foods they choose to buy will remain safe.”

Cross-brand innovation

When it comes to tamper-evident packaging, Hartsville, S.C.-based Novolex prides itself on its approach to cross-brand innovation and design through its Rapid Innovation Teams, which enable it to respond quickly to customer needs, said Paul Frantz, the company’s president of Food & Delivery.

This proved especially important during COVID.

“The pandemic accelerated demand for delivery and carryout packaging that could also provide enhanced food security and hygiene, and our teams helped us deliver against increasing demand,” Frantz said.

The demand for tamper-evident packaging has dramatically increased in recent years, he added — thanks in large part to the rapid expansion of food delivery services. After a 2019 US Food Survey discovered that one in four food delivery drivers tasted customers’ food, tamper-evident packaging provided a way for customers to feel confident when taking the first bite.

“Under COVID-19, this nice-to-have perk became a necessity expanding into all aspects of the food industry, from takeout to the supermarket,” Frantz said. “In a fear-focused cultural context, innovative packaging solutions that prioritizing health and safety all aspects of the food industry have become our customers’ No. 1 concern.”

Novolex’s roster of tamper-evident packaging includes Smart-Tab containers, created by the company’s Waddington North America brand.

The see-through containers allow customers to display their products to consumers while also prominently showing that the food has not been touched since it was packaged, Frantz said. They can be used to store anything from nuts and chips to fresh fruit.

Novolex’s Waddington Europe brand, meanwhile, recently launched its TamperVisible Hot Fill product line, made from recycled materials. In addition to being tamper-evident, these containers can withstand temperatures of up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, making them a perfect packaging option for soups, pastas, and ready-made meals.

Even after COVID is in the rearview mirror, Novolex expects the need for its customers to deliver food safety reassurance to consumers will continue to grow, Frantz said.

“Just as many vaccinated persons will continue to wear masks out of an abundance of caution long after CDC restrictions lessen, many consumers will expect other precautions taken by grocery stores during the pandemic to continue as a way to curb the spread of other communicable diseases.”

Swapping out the hot bars and salad bars for prepackaged meals may be here to stay, forcing supermarkets to rethink what to-go food offerings will be available, and how they will rethink cafeteria settings, Frantz said.