How Vaccine Distribution Is Changing the Way We Think About Food Packaging

Gary Barter, project director, food division at VAI

The distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has highlighted the importance of efficient packaging technology, especially where cold chain logistics are involved. The high demand for vaccines has brought unique challenges for packaging experts, from sand and glass shortages to the need for cold chain-appropriate packaging. These hurdles have put packaging technology to the test, but have also spurred the development of efficiencies and advances that will continue to impact the packaging industry for a long time to come.

The role of packaging in reducing waste

Packaging experts have played a key role in the global accessibility of the COVID-19 vaccine. But they have also faced challenges at every stage of the process. For example, many vaccine doses must be stored at varying below-freezing temperatures, requiring different types of storage packaging for the vaccines. Although thousands of vaccine doses have gone to waste, perfecting the packaging of vaccine doses has helped improve outcomes and ensure vaccine safety and efficacy throughout the process.

Packaging plays an equally important role in the food industry, where it is essential in preventing spoilage and reducing waste. Approximately 30-40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes to waste every year. The USDA Economic Research Service estimates that nearly 40 percent of this loss occurs in the supply chain — and unfortunately, packaging plays a role in some of this loss.

At every stage of the supply chain after a food product is processed or harvested, issues like damaged or improper packaging contribute to food waste. Applying packaging best practices developed during vaccine distribution can help ensure appropriate packaging that keeps products fresh and clarifies care instructions. This requires robust information technology, including an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to properly trace and track the movement of products throughout the supply chain with barcode scanning, labeling, or radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags.

Innovations in packaging

A product’s packaging directly impacts supply chain considerations: The right packaging and shipping containers can preserve food quality while offering convenience to consumers. Throughout the pandemic, packaging experts have modernized their practices for creating efficient packaging for vaccine distribution. Below are a few insights that carry over to food packaging.

  • Cold chain packaging improvements

During the vaccine distribution process, a major glass shortage forced packaging companies to create dynamic materials that could withstand freezing temperatures in the cold chain. SiO2 Materials Science was a pioneer in creating vials from a fusion of plastic and glass that offered the same protection as glass without the threat of breakage.

Packaging experts also constructed functional packaging that allowed air flow to vaccine doses to maintain certain temperatures, which is equally important in the distribution of food. Products stored on tertiary packaging like pallets help air reach products, reducing bacteria growth and keeping food fresh longer.

  • Importance of nanotechnology

Scientists who explored the use of antimicrobial nanomaterials to reduce the spread of COVID-19 are shining a spotlight on the use of nanotechnology in textiles, sanitizers, and coatings — and the food packaging industry should take note. While nanomaterials are already being used at multiple stages of the packaging supply chain, their use in the pandemic demonstrated the additional integration in the food supply chain.

Nanomaterials in antibacterial packaging, barrier films and coatings, temperature-controlled packaging, and food sensors act as a barrier to moisture and gases. They also offer UV protection. Enhancing packaging with nanomaterials helps extend product shelf life, improves packaging security, increases the strength and flexibility of the packaging, and in many instances speeds up biodegradability. Its use will help reduce food waste and ensure product safety and traceability going forward.

  • Advanced monitoring

Advances in tracking technology have enabled easier and more accessible traceability for both food and vaccine distribution, helping reduce contamination and spoilage by identifying risks before faulty products arrive at their end market.

Technology such as RFID transmitters can be embedded in packaging to track a product throughout the supply chain, from its manufacture or grow date to its arrival at a final location. Highly accurate sensors that provide real-time data are resulting in more reliable traceability and optimized operations, which is just as important in vaccine distribution as it is in the food industry. The integration of cold chain monitoring technology in packaging is improving, and it ensures products maintain certain temperatures and stay fresh. As 5G and IoT technology progresses, tracking in the cold chain will only become easier.

  • More functional labels

Labeling is just as important as the packaging itself because it serves as an interface between brands and consumers. Labels provide essential information like expiration dates, agricultural information and manufacturing locations. Tracking technology makes this information more accessible and reliable so consumers know exactly what they are getting.

Similar to the detailed instructions provided on vaccine packaging, many restaurants that offered carry-out during the pandemic have started providing detailed care instructions on their labels. Labels with information like how long food can sit out or how long it is safe to eat after being refrigerated help protect consumers, prevent spoilage and reduce waste.

Advancements in packaging, tracking technology, and cold chain efficiency are all playing a role in streamlining food and vaccine distribution processes. And just as importantly, improvements in traceability are allowing for more transparency on products while helping companies optimize their operations.

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