In a world of seven billion people, set to grow to nine billion by 2050, about one-third of all food produced, worth around 1 trillion USD, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems, according to data released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
Food waste is a worldwide problem. Some believe that innovative packaging is the key in the fight against food loss and wastage. But the problem, and thus the solution, is more complicated.
In industrialized countries, Food Waste is caused by processors, retailers as well as consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash. At food manufacturing and retail levels, large quantities of food are wasted due to inefficient practices, quality standards that over-emphasize appearance, confusion over date labels, and consumers being quick to throw away edible food due to over-buying, inappropriate storage and preparing meals that are too large.
The dominating “use before” labels on perishable packaged food are used as a law in itself to determine when to throw out the food product. However the sell-by or use-before date is a cautious estimate at best and just defines the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.
However, according to UK’s Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP), approximately 60% of household food waste arises from products “not used in time”.
At the other side of the coin, in developing countries, roughly 95% of food loss and waste are unintentional losses at the early stages of the food supply. When we look at food loss, one of the big problems in developing countries is the lack of a modern packaging system.
Last year in an article in PackWorld, Ben Miyares wrote about canned food and concluded, that “Another change force working against cans is [its] exceedingly long product life. Cans can and do extend product lives longer than any rigid plastic or flexible packaging alternatives. But … who needs a container that will hold a product for up to 10 years when the typical product journey from point of production to point of consumption takes less than two years?”
I agree with him that canned food is missing the sophisticated appearance other packaging formats have. But I also don’t agree with him, as, in view of food waste, canned food is far the best solution. According to a current study by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, suitable packaging is capable of reducing food loss considerably. That’s why it’s the central theme of Interpack 2014, where its SAVE FOOD Initiative, a joint project of the FAO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Messe Düsseldorf GmbH, will try to foster dialogue between industry, research, the political sphere and civil society on the subject of food loss.
And although many insiders consider the food can as nearly dead and a packaging format of times bygone, in a minute I will discuss the advantages of a long-life packaging format and the future of the canned food as I see it.
Actual market position
Despite losing some market share to new packaging formats, such as stand-up pouches, aseptic cartons, plastic tubs and other non-metal containers, metal food cans hold a place in the hearts of consumers around the world.
Canning technology keeps food fresh and flavourful, naturally. When foods go through the canning process, nutrients are locked in so the amount of vitamins and nutrients in the food is the same on the day it was canned as it is a year from the canning date. According to a 2012 University of California-Davis study, many canned fruits and vegetables have equal or more nutrients than their fresh or frozen counterparts, as canned fruits and vegetables are picked at the peak of ripeness and canned, often just hours after harvest, at facilities just a few miles away from the farms.
However, a 2012 survey showed that consumers were less aware that the canning process itself seals in freshness, flavour, nutrition and the process keeps it that way.
And when we look at the many recalls in the food arena, we only can conclude that canned foods are safe. It has been three-decades since the last foodborne illness linked to a failure of cans or other metal packaging was reported.
“The latest advances in materials and coatings, as well as state-of-the-art visual and mechanical inspection of every single can that is manufactured, are integral to a food safety record for metal packaging that is without parallel today”, states the North American Metal Packaging Alliance.
And although metal food cans are considered a packaging format from a bygone era, rejected by younger generations as dated, filled with old-fashioned-type foods, and according to Euromonitor notoriously difficult to open, heavy and looking identical on supermarket shelves, the metal can has a brilliant future and not only in the battle against Food Waste.
But ………. I have to include a few conditions. But before we go to the present and necessary future developments and innovations in metal cans for food, let’s analyse the food industry’s switch to alternative packaging formats and in particular its reasoning.
The switch to alternative packaging formats
Food cans have in the eye of the consumer some disadvantages. I say “in the eye of”, because they not always correspond with reality. Here are some:
Topping the list of consumer demands for foods and packaging are freshness, ingredients of superior quality, convenience and eco-friendliness. Although a can is able to provide all of these, consumer perception is very low. A survey found that consumers hold a number of misconceptions about canned food and its nutritional benefits. Only 27% believe that canned food is as nutritious as frozen; only 18% agree that canned food measures up to fresh, while research indicates that canned food can be nutritionally on a par with both fresh and frozen food.
Over the last decennia, food packaging companies switched from preserving individual meal components to presenting fresh complete meals. As this trend advances, the can continues to be challenged by lighter, more distinctive packaging that entices consumers to consume their contents directly from the containers.
The universal quest for sustainable packaging options has packagers looking for lightweight containers. Only glass containers are heavier than cans for an equivalent product volume.
And last but not least. Worrisome questions continue to be asked about the chemical component, bisphenol A, in the epoxy linings used in most food and beverage cans. While industry and government scientists generally agree that bisphenol A is safe, the consuming public harbours a healthy scepticism about what corporations and governments fail to say about what’s good for consumers.
And all these disadvantages (and probably some more) indeed are a challenge for cans, and without further innovations (about those in a minute), leaving an unhealthy opening for alternative packaging formats to enter the “canned food” arena.
The alternatives battling for a share in the canned food market segment consist mainly of three formats. The carton pack, the stand-up pouch and the rigid plastic container. To make things more serious for the metal can is the fact that all three alternatives also are retortable, long a unique feature of the metal food can.
Let’s have a look at these alternatives in our next article and conclude with an overview of the new developments and what is to be expected in food canning in the near future that not only secures the position of canned food, but also will enhance the consumer perception.