by Gary BOLTON
Wednesday, September 13, 2023

How thermal transfer printing can help ensure the safety and quality of food

Traceability along the entire packaging supply chain – from manufacturing to point of sale – is increasingly important to ensure food safety and quality. The thermal transfer printing technology  thermal transfer overprinting (TTO) can help brands stay compliant.

Global supply chains have come under the spotlight as never before during the past three years, having endured the perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic and worldwide geopolitical events.

Until relatively recently, consumers took it for granted that food from all over the world would be available 24/7-365 without interruption. Now, with supply chains under unprecedented strain and shoppers in varied markets confronted with empty shelves devoid of staples like fresh fruit and vegetables, provenance, traceability and stock management have never been higher up the list of priorities. 

A series of high-profile food safety crises have added to the pressure on manufacturers to identify the source of the materials used on their production lines to ensure product authenticity, safety and quality.

Traceability, therefore, not only means giving health-conscious consumers the confidence that the food they are buying is truly organic; it also helps ensure that products are safe, demonstrates due diligence in the event of a product recall and prevents potential damage to brands and reputation.

With disrupted supply chains also comes the challenge of counterfeiting or black-market activity, particularly around products such as wine or champagne, which often have to meet specific and stringent guarantees of origin. Again, coding is very important to protect brands and businesses. 

In this article, we will look at how new 2D barcodes offer superior product traceability and visibility beyond the existing pricing and inventory information, and how thermal transfer overprinting (TTO) enables accurate and efficient printing of 2D codes on a wide variety of substrates, making updatable, brand-controlled product information available to the entire packaging supply chain.


Challenges facing food manufacturers

The increasing complexity of the global food supply chain brings with it a host of new challenges for manufacturers, packaging companies and brands, not just around product data aimed at consumers, but also traceability information in barcodes that ensures compliance with food safety regulations.

2D barcodes address these challenges (and others) by replacing the present system of global trade item numbers (GTINs) – which are often combined with quick response (QR) or data matrix codes – with a single code that connects every product to the internet using an embedded Web address.

The new GS1 Digital Link – a simple, standards-based structure for encoding information into 2D codes so they become part of the Web – enables the identification of specific product batches, or even serialized products. This additional barcode data can support linking to information about provenance, recall, and/or expiry, meaning retailers can save significant time – and avoid losing revenue and brand trust – by quickly and precisely locating and removing products from shelves.

“In addition to consumer drivers such as improved customer engagement, more product information on food safety, ingredients and allergens, and digitally enabled content – coupons, ship to home capability and store location, for instance – the new 2D codes offer retail and brand manufacturers multiple advantages,” explained Steven Keddie, senior director, automatic identification and data capture, and SME lead at the international barcode standards organisation, GS1, recently.

“These include efficiency gains in terms of automatic stock management (lot, date, scan in and out), traceability – using 2D to enable Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC)  from manufacturing production lines to the consumers – and improved packaging, as 2D are smaller than linear codes.”


Reliability, consistency and durability

So, what are the implications for printing solution providers such as Markem-Imaje and how can TTO help manufacturers achieve high quality, compliant marking and coding on food packaging?

Markem-Imaje has operated at the leading edge of thermal transfer coding for more than three decades. The company’s SmartDate® Series, its industrial thermal transfer overprinter series, provides reliable high-quality codes on flow-wrappers, bags, tray seals, pouches, sachets, vacuum packs or labels.

During TTO, heat is used to transfer ink from a thermal transfer ribbon onto various flexible films packaging in the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries, printing high-resolution barcodes and variable information such as best-by dates and serial numbers without impacting the aesthetics of the packaging film artwork.

TTO is also fast enough to cope with the highest production speeds in flexible film packaging, particularly in the food and beverage (F&B) space8, while offering both reliability and consistency in terms of the finished print, as well as consistency from batch to batch and ribbon to ribbon.

TTO solutions provide unique and durable coding and marking on heat-sensitive surfaces that are resistant to both fading and smudging, are adept at printing a large amount of information such as ingredients labels (again, a boon for F&B manufacturers) and are compatible with a wide range of surfaces and media including new sustainable mono-material films and compostable packaging.


Future trends

Looking to the future, sustainability-related regulatory changes including the UK Plastic Packaging Tax, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation   and those related to packaging food safety like the Swiss Ordinance List – along with the perennial demand from customers for more efficiency, reliability and uptime – will continue to challenge print technology providers such as Markem-Imaje to push the boundaries with even more innovative technologies.

Markem-Imaje has responded with SmartDate® Xtreme Plus, which adds additional capability to TTO, allowing customers to print extra durable and crisp codes on sustainable, paper-based substrates using high resin ribbons at speeds of up 600mm/s. This makes it an ideal solution for the food and pharmaceutical sectors, where it is critical that codes do not smear or disappear in hot factories or rub off in transit.

We also inevitably see more automation and digitalisation in the form of the internet of things (IoT) in order to improve efficiency and uptime, and to reduce the risk of error. The thermal transfer printing technology TTO has evolved with the market; by partnering with a technology provider with deep domain expertise, such as Markem-Imaje food manufacturers and brands can continue to enjoy the many benefits TTO offers in terms of high quality, compliant marking and coding, and help ensure product safety, quality and traceability.

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