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How Does Quality and Proper Packaging Increase Food Shelf Life?

June 12, 2015

Food packaging is primarily intended to protect the food contained in the packaging from temperature and atmospheric changes, oxygen, dust and moisture, as well as increase its shelf life, or the maximum length of time a particular food remains fresh and safe for consumption.

Nearly everything has a shelf life, whether it is frozen foods bought at market, prescription from the pharmacy, or gasoline you put in your vehicle. The shelf life of an item or product depends on its susceptibility to light, heat, various invisible / atmospheric gasses, micro-organisms, and stresses from moving, vibrations, shifting, etc. However, shelf life alone is not an indicator of how long the product will necessary remain in a safe state. The product’s packaging plays an important role in protecting the product or item from contamination.


Packaging has been done in some form for centuries. Commercial consumer packaging is directed toward whatever product is being preserved. Packaging can generally be described as:

• primary packaging: the material that directly wraps the product;

• secondary packaging: the outside wrapping that might hold several of the primary-wrapped products together;

• tertiary packaging: used to ship, transport, or store a unit of items (i.e.: a shrink-wrapped pallet of canned goods).

Vacuum packaging remains the primary method used by the food packaging industry. It is proven to extend the shelf life by days or months.

An increasingly popular modern packaging trend is modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). It successfully extends shelf life and is a viable food preservation alternative to vacuum packaging, canning, bottling, or freezing process. Oxygen is removed from the packaging and replaced by a carbon dioxide and nitrogen mixture. The types of packaging and specific gas mixture depend on the type of food and storage temp. For example, non-respiring foods demand impermeable high-barrier films.

Packaging Materials

Packaging materials can be primary, secondary, or tertiary packaging depending on their use. Shrink wrap for example is quite versatile and may be used at any stage of packaging providing it serves the intent of product protection and safety.

Labeling is part of packaging and is as important as the material itself. Printing ink, adhesives, and coatings that come in contact with the product must be regulated to ensure they do not contaminate the product over the course of its intended shelf life. Identification codes, bar codes, and EDI (electronic data interchange) identify product information and origination, ownership, handling, and destination to ensure consumers are not subject to products that have surpassed their safe and useful shelf life.

Packaging Regulations and Design

Food contact materials are direct additives, which are those from the product itself and indirect additives that come from food additives that prolong product shelf life, and packaging substances that come in contact with the product.

Packaging designed for one product is not suited or adequate for others. Packaging as well as the product itself must adhere to regulatory requirements. Food scientists, toxicologists, and packaging engineers verify food contact materials, completed packaging to ensure the intended shelf life, and the overall packaging processes, including labeling, distribution, and sales, meet established regulations.

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