Is there a need for tamper-proof produce packaging?

May 14, 2015

Reports of product tampering in the retail environment have been part of news cycles for decades. In 2005, Masterfoods lost an estimated $7.5 million when an Australian extortionist claimed to have contaminated Mars and Snickers bars with pesticide; Gerber had a scare in 1986 when someone put glass in bottles of baby food; and of course, the most infamous case of product tampering happened in 1982, when seven people died from cyanide poisoning after taking Tylenol.

Incidents of serious food tampering are relatively uncommon but in the past have cost brand owners millions of dollars. So, is tamper-proof packaging necessary when it comes to produce?

Grant Ferguson, vice president, sales and marketing for Chantler Packaging, Mississauga, Ontario, isn’t so sure.

LINDAR_SimplySecure_0967“Produce is more easily inspected by consumers and tampering may be detected more easily,” he says. “Unintentional tampering or contamination is more of an issue in produce. It lacks the safety programs and improper storage or handling of produce poses more of a threat to the average consumer.”

A new solution

In 2014, Baxter, Minnesota-based Lindar released Simply Secure, a selection of tamper obvious packaging that is among the first of its kind in the food packaging industry. The Simply Secure packaging includes special tabs that snap into place to secure the product while in stores.

“We took an approach to use closures and visible tabs that both the packing facility and consumer was familiar with using. We also wanted it to be in the front of the package to be visible to everyone,” said Dave Fosse, director of marketing for Lindar. “It’s a visible way for the consumer to be confident that the food product that they are buying has not been altered since it was put into the container.”

For one to open the package, the perforated tabs can be simply torn off, making it user friendly, while easily identifiable if the container has been opened. They are available in both two-piece and hinged varieties.

Its Simply Secure packaging for produce containers are designed for fruits and vegetables including cut melons, grapes, mini carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, and can be created in a variety of shapes and sizes.

“We know that food safety is a large concern for the consumer and there are many things to consider as tampering,” Fosse said. “With more produce being further processed for convenience purposes, the need grows that the processed product needs to have a obvious way for the consumer to know that the package and contents has not been altered.”

Packaging guru Jeff Brandenburg, president of the JSB Group, Greenfield, Massachusetts, said he’s not aware of any instance where something has actually happened, but understands why companies are considering it.

“Since 9/11, the entire food industry, produce companies especially, have looked at food security and the defenses of food, and there’s a lot of things that have happened in the produce industry since then,” he said. “From a tampering-evident perspective, there’s been some talk about whether fresh produce could be a way for eco-terrorism in this country, so as a result of that, people have looked at tamper-evident packaging.”

In May, Madison, Wisconsin-based Placon introduced a tamper-evident plastic clamshell complete with a hinge that alerts if tampering has occurred. The custom-food containers are being used in retail stores to sell fruit and vegetables.

According to Brandenburg, another tamper-evident packaging product that some produce packagers may soon experiment with is shrink band, a pre-cut piece of plastic or PVC tubing that is cut to a specific dimension and applied to a container and then shrunk by the addition of heat. Once shrunk, the shrink band provides tamper evidence.

Around the industry

While a survey of produce and packaging experts say there hasn’t been any extreme product tampering of produce that is noteworthy, some say the potential for bioterrorism, corporate sabotage or even pranksterism is there, and that alone is reason enough to look into tamper proof packaging. Still, based on industry knowledge and retail feedback, the largest concern is someone getting into a package to taste or feel the product.

“Packaging manufacturers must take these safeguards to instill confidence in consumers that their food is safe,” Ferguson said. “Brand trust is reinforced when they know safeguards have been taken. After all, it’s not just packaging, its what we eat food out of.”

Brandenburg feels that the safeguards are also somewhat of a marketing ploy, as consumers worry about what’s happening in the world around them.

“Packaging companies have jumped on to this trend and tell consumers that they can supply tamper-evident packaging, just like the prescription drug industry,” he said. “With 9/11 it allowed them to differentiate their products. It’s a more marketing-add valuation than it is an absolute, ‘you have to have it or someone is going to get sick’ kind of deal.”

Challenges to protection

Studies have shown that people like to touch and smell their produce before buying, so having product in packaging of this sort can keep people from inspecting the fruit and vegetables the way they would like.

On one shelf a retailer could have a clamshell tray with tamper-evident packaging and right next to it will be a bin of apples that are stored in bulk. The consumer won’t necessarily just choose the former.

Another problem with tamper evident packaging, Brandenburg said, is that it can impact the ability of the package to perform proper modified atmospheres.

Final thoughts

Ferguson said the problem is more an issue of prevention and risk mitigation then anything else, citing the 2011 U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act, which called for better coordination of inspection and regulation of tamper evident programs; and a recent report by Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, which concluded that “an intelligent and motivated” suspect could tamper with a food item in which there is a 100 percent probability someone would fall victim.

He recommends educating consumers and encouraging them to familiarize themselves with packaging, and examining food closely before purchasing and prior to preparing it.

“Companies can work closely with groups such as the Grocery Retailers Association, the Institute of Food Technologists, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Global Food Safety Initiative, to implement new tamper evident technologies and respond to possible threats,” he said. “Frank discussions with customers about possible dangers and preventative steps is key.”

— By Keith Loria, contributing writer