Reducing the number of misleading statements on food labels remains a “big deal” in the food industry, says April Kates, a consultant for EAS Consulting Group.
And for grocery perimeter departments in particular, new menu regulations are having an impact on deli, retail foodservice and other corners of the perimeter. “Large chains with 20 or more stores will have to comply when they have ready-made sandwiches, things like that,” Kates says.
Providing nutrition labeling will “continue to challenge the industry,” she says. In addition, allergen labeling will remain front and center for deli and other perimeter departments. As an example, Kates cites retailers who sell pre-made salads that ship in large containers.
“What happens is they buy that salad for years, and their supplier might change an ingredient and end up putting something in there may not be on the label and that the retailer may not be cognizant of,” she says.
Say the retailer’s been buying fake crab salad for years. One day their supplier decides to substitute another crustacean that’s not fake, only doesn’t tell them about it.
“It will be a continuing problem in the industry, especially for grocers,” she says. “They have such a huge list of products, so many cats to herd, that I think it will be an issue for them to constantly stay on top of that.”
Another labeling issue that will be top of mind for perimeter store departments in the coming year is liking to be Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), Kates says.
“COOL could be an issue in the perimeter because of trade issues —having suppliers supply retailers with accurate information is always a big watchout,” she says. “A ham, for example, if from Italy, would need to be labeled with country of origin.”
Other than as a requirement for entry into the U.S., the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service requires country of origin labeling on muscle cuts of beef, veal, lamb, mutton, pork, goat, chicken, ground beef, ground lamb, ground pork, ground goat and ground chicken, fish and shellfish, perishable commodities (fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables), peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts.
“Commodities that are ingredients in a processed food item, like a mixed salad, would be exempt,” Kates says.
New GMO labeling requirements kick in
New laws and regulations regarding GMOs (the latest was issued by the United States Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 21) also will present labeling challenges for grocery perimeter departments, Kates says.
“Meat and poultry and egg products are exempt but combo products may not be depending on where they are on the ingredient statement,” Kates says. The closer the listed ingredients are to the top of the statement, for example, the more likely they’ll need to identify as GMO.
In the perimeter, some things are covered under the new regulations and some aren’t, Kates says.
“It’s a very confusing patchwork,” she says. “If you make a sandwich that someone takes away from the perimeter, that would not be required,” she says, citing an exemption for restaurants and that would also apply to some retail foodservice applications.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are required to have GMO labeling. Pink pineapples and Arctic brand apples are two examples.
“I think it will be problematic for people until they get the necessary information up in the market,” Kates says. “It’s sort of complicated the way certain foods are exempt. The rule has a lot of ins and outs.”
Heightened concern on the perimeter
Labeling is becoming more and more crucial to retailers and producers of fresh perimeter and other foods sold at retail, says Joanna Mooberry, market segment manager for Aurora, Illinois-based Mettler Toledo CI-Vision, a division of Columbus, Ohio-based Mettler Toledo.
“People want to ensure that they’re maintaining consistency and that they’re in compliance” with the latest labeling regulations and laws, Mooberry says. “We’re definitely seeing a lot more interest.”
Mettler Toledo CI-Vision’s vision inspection systems examine labels for errors and help ensure that labels match the contents of their products. Their computerized systems are always on, contrasted with companies that rely on occasional checks by human beings. Such manual inspections, Mooberry says, can’t keep up with super-fast production line speeds. But many still rely on manual inspection to protect themselves from product defects.
Interest in CI-Vision, Mooberry says, is particularly strong among producers of small batches of product and global companies that need to be consistent in their food label monitoring in all of the countries where they do business.
CI-Vision works well at various points along the supply chain, Mooberry says. It can be used, for instance, to check labels on both bagged salads and on the crates that are used in the fields where the lettuce for the salads is picked.
CI-Vision recently became certified under CFR Title 21 Part 2, an industry standard for accurate electronic recording. Such standards are crucial, Mooberry says, in the event of a recall traced to an inaccurate or damaged label.
“What was scanned, when it was scanned, which plant did it come from” are among the questions that systems like CI-Vision that have earned CFR approval are capable of answering.
CI-Vision can be customized by individual users to look for whatever producers deem most important on a label, e.g. GMO-free, gluten-free, nut-free and a host of other restrictions related to allergens, health and other concerns.
The system can detect not only missing words but also labels that have been torn or wrinkled, rendering certain words illegible. “Tearing and wrinkling happens a lot on production lines,” Mooberry says.
Better technology, better results
Mettler-Toledo reports strong demand for an upgrade to CI-Vision it introduced in 2016, Mooberry says. The company’s system can detect errors in ink jet print, which can be very difficult to read.
Metter Toledo’s visual inspection systems come with adjustable user permissions to help prevent system overrides from happening—and if they still do, user tracking in the control software will show managers who was responsible for the override. In addition, Metter Toledo’s systems can be programmed to check all aspects of a label, from ensuring it’s the correct label to verifying the readability of its information.
By requiring operators to enter lot codes multiple times—or even requiring two separate operators to enter new lot codes—manufacturers are able to ensure that the correct lot codes have been registered, ensuring traceability. Vision inspection systems will also catch more subtle errors in label presentation, such as improperly spelled or illegible words, unreadable bar codes, and poor-quality graphics.
Failure to disclose allergens is one of the biggest mislabeling problems in the food industry, Mooberry says. Forty percent of product recalls involve allergens.
Mislabeling is particularly problem when a product contains more than one label, she says. A product containing multiple units, for instance, often has an ingredients label on the outside packaging and one on each individual unit. Craft manufacturers also are more exposed to labeling errors if they need to frequently change labels by hand as product changes.
Another problem is equipment malfunction, which is slightly less common than human error, but no less disastrous, according to a Mettler Toledo white paper. Printers perform multiple runs of the same label design as manufacturers need them, which creates the risk of slight variations in each individual run. The slightest printer error can prevent important information from being included on a label.
Label simplification gets big thumbs-up from industry
In December, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute put out a joint report which found that 87 percent of companies have taken steps to simplify the use of “use by” and “best if used by” on their packaging. By 2020, 98 percent are expected to be on board, once companies work through their stocks of existing labels.
“It’s very good news,” says April Kates, a consultant for EAS Consulting Group. “The average consumer does not know the difference between used by and best if used by. One concerns food safety, one quality.
The simplified food labeling not only has positive food safety benefits, it also helps reduce food waste, Kates says. Bakery is one perimeter department in particular that has welcomed the change, Kates says.
“This was a low cost thing to fix. People have to change labels anyway — they have to fix nutrition labels, and to indicate whether a product is bioengineered or not — so as people change labels, it’s not a big deal to change how they do ‘best by’ or ‘use by.’”