Are Your Labels Food-Safe?

noelward

Well-known member
Are Your Labels Food-Safe?

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

You’ve probably heard about the potential damage “micro-plastics” pose to marine life, which may make you think twice about the plastics you toss in the trash. Or maybe not. But what about the dangers posed by the colorful labels used on countless consumer products? This spans not just foods but the innumerable brands of cosmetics, vitamins and nutraceuticals resident in most households. The latter one, nutraceuticals, are largely unregulated in the United States, but depending on the ingredients and the claims with which a product is marketed, a nutraceutical may be regulated as a drug, dietary supplement, food ingredient, or food. This bit of trivia brings us to the packaging and labeling of a product which must meet food-safe standards, meaning the inks or toners that decorate the packaging must satisfy a series of standards laid down by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

This was not lost on me a couple years back when I visited the offices, plant and warehouse of a sizeable nutraceutical maker. They had a variety of presses on hand to handle their various printing needs but the machines that stood out were those bearing the Xeikon logo. I’d been to Xeikon’s factory in Belgium, nodded sagely when they talked about food-safe toner, and seen the company’s toner operation so I was curious. This seemed to be a differentiator.

What is food-safe?
I have since learned more about labels, packaging, and how digital printing applies in certain markets. Food-safe is actually a big deal that has become especially important as a growing number of print providers seek to add packaging to their offerings. Basically, if your ink or toner is likely to be in contact with something people will take internally or put on their skin it had better be food-safe or you may find the Feds knocking on your door. The term includes, by the way, the fine print on the labels. Pharmaceutical products, even over-the-counter prescription lotions, require food-safe labels.

Since Xeikon offers both toner and inkjet printers I asked for more info. Toner printers from Xeikon use a food-safe toner that is approved for direct food contact, hence the use of Xeikon presses at the nutraceutical firm I visited. This unique ability is part of the labels and packaging produced by LabelTec of Fort Collins, Colorado. The company’s customers span a host of agricultural, food and beverage, health and beauty, nutraceuticals, medical, craft beers and spirits and in recent years, cannabis providers.

LabelTec president Randy Hargadine says high quality labels have been the hallmark of LabelTec since its beginning in the early Eighties. Seeking to continue this legacy, Hargadine’s team has drawn on its skills, careful methods, and industry-leading technology. When medical-use cannabis was legalized in Colorado in 2000, followed by recreational usage in 2012, Hargadine turned his focus to the new market segment to grow the business started by his parents. The booming growth in cannabis and craft beverages in Colorado helped LabelTec’s business grow exponentially. But there were challenges from shorter run lengths and an expanding number of SKUs.

The shift to digital printing came when Paul Mullaly joined LabelTec in 2014 and encouraged Hargadine to consider a digital press to further diversify their market segments and address the need for short and customized print runs that were not practical on the company’s 12-color flexographic press. Mullaly believed a digital solution would provide the quality the company was known for while providing the ability to meet short lead times, small quantities, and multiple SKUs. Based on recommendations from industry peers, a Xeikon 3300 REX soon became part of the press fleet at LabelTec. Hargadine and Mullaly found they could provide a similar look and feel to that provided by their 12-coloflexo press enabling them to go back and forth between presses—an essential capability in the world of labels and packaging. Moreover, Xeikon’s FDA-certified food-safe dry toner meant that no hazardous substances would migrate to the products, a critical issue for the end-use segments they serve.

The digital press enabled LabelTec to print many nutraceutical labels and small craft beer runs with multiple SKUs. “To get into the craft beer market with all its SKUs using flexo meant absorbing the cost of many flexo plates. Now we no longer have to do that,” said Mulally. “The same is true for cannabis. That market is made up of smaller start-up producers, so we were printing only one to two thousand labels. We would never have been able to compete without a digital press.”

Short learning curve
To make sure they would get the most out of the new press, Hargadine and Mullaly sent one of their flexo press assistants to Xeikon Basic Operator Training (BOT) to learn how to operate the 3300. “He took it, grabbed it, and understood it,” recounts Hargadine. “He had no real knowledge of flexo or digital printing—he’s just a sharp guy. Backing him up was Xeikon. They answered every question and the Innovation Center offered to help at any time.”

Hargadine adds, “We are able to duplicate much of what we were doing on flexo and provide a consistent look for customers because the press’s color-matching capabilities can achieve the same look on the same substrates.”

FDA Guidelines
As LabelTec’s example shows, food-safe labeling is not a trivial issue and can be a differentiator when using some digital presses. It makes solid business sense to ensure that the labeling on consumer food, nutraceutical, beverage or cannabis products meet or exceed FDA standards, if for no other reason than to keep your company and its customers out of trouble.

Such safety has been a driver at Xeikon in ensuring the toners used in its electrophotographic presses are food-safe. This has also influenced the server and cloud-based color management of the company’s X800 workflow to ensure that every Xeikon press owner can reliably and consistently produce labels and packaging that meet FDA food-safe requirements. Does this mean every label you print has to come off a digital press using food-safe toner? Of course not. But it does mean you have the option of using whichever technology best fits an application and helps you remain productive and profitable. In a world of proliferating SKUs, shorter run lengths and faster turn-around times, using the right technology can be a competitive advantage for your company.

Food-safe is not just a buzzword or attention getter. It is a must-have capability for label and packaging shops and can help differentiate a printing business in an age when every advantage is important—and can put money on your bottom line.
 
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