From panicked consumers who left meat shelves empty to baby boomers who are now more comfortable with click-and-collect shopping; from traffic management inside the store to the need for dedicated staff to constantly sanitize shopping carts and store surfaces — this is the retail food environment in 2020. And while we can acknowledge we’ve seen changes many of us wouldn’t have thought possible only a few short months ago — we also know we’re not done.
In the midst of a human health crisis generated by a novel virus, it should come as no surprise to the food industry that consumers are becoming hyper-vigilant when it comes to environmental hygiene, food safety, and the protection of our food supply from contamination, spoilage, and degradation. Consumers have started looking across the global food supply chain, asking us to do more to ensure their health and safety — and that’s why now, more than ever, you need CRYOVAC® brand high-performance barrier packaging.
When it comes to protecting perishable foods, Sealed Air typically recommends the use of multi-layer, barrier materials. While some foods like fresh produce or fresh poultry call for non-barrier films and bags, most other applications benefit from some level of barrier properties for the highest levels of protection from product degradation, physical or chemical spoilage, or microbiological contamination.
When compared to single layer monoplastics, multilayer barrier plastics provide additional and desired properties such as durability against punctures or tears, protection from oxygen or light, oxygen or odor scavenging properties, protection against microorganisms, and yes, even protection from viruses. And, while these characteristics are what make CRYOVAC® brand barrier films exceptional in terms of food protection, these highly valued performance characteristics are also what renders these materials harder to recycle.
Over the past several years, global concerns and regulations about single use plastic have become part of our public consciousness. Food packaging materials with characteristics such as being single layer, made with recycled materials, or those marketed as easier-to-recycle have positioned themselves against barrier plastics as being more “sustainable.”
At Sealed Air, we invest a lot of time and effort into keeping a pulse on what consumers want from their food packaging. And while we continue to see widespread consumer interest in finding packaging choices that are more sustainable, what consumers define as sustainable is set to change — especially when it comes to potential trade-offs between environmental concerns versus package performance.
From a global survey conducted in 2019, Sealed Air found that while an average of 80% of consumers interviewed expressed concerns about plastic pollution and the amount of plastic in landfills, equal numbers in the U.S. and China also listed protection against “unreliable food safety and hygiene” as a top concern.
When it came to literal trade-offs between food packaging that contains recycled materials or packaging materials that are considered recyclable, consumers expressed great interest in these characteristics — but not at the expense of package performance for maintaining freshness and food safety.
It should be noted that Sealed Air conducted this global research in 2018 and again in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. While we would expect similar responses should this research be repeated in the next 12 months, based on emerging third-party data, we would also anticipate heightened interest in package performance as it relates to food safety.
In June 2020, the International Food Information Council Foundation shared research conducted in April 2020 that indicated a large shift in the way U.S. consumers view food safety concerns. Exposure risk to COVID-19 took the top spot with 24% of survey takers ranking it as their number-one food safety issue. The high concern related to COVID-19 exposure corresponded with a decline in concern over other food safety issues we’ve heard for years, including contamination from bacteria, chemicals in food, and genetically modified organisms.
While we are happy to report there have been no cases of COVID-19 traced back to the food supply and that experts we trust agree the risk of encountering the virus on food packaging is extremely low, we also know that heightened public awareness and hyper-vigilant consumers are capable of driving serious change. Just as we are watching consumers permanently change their shopping habits, as a result of social distancing, we believe we are just as likely to see a renewed emphasis on the importance of food safety and package integrity. And that’s what CRYOVAC® brand essential food packaging is all about.