There is a longstanding and remarkable history to the reuse of transport packaging in carrying and delivering farm harvests, food ingredients, fresh and processed foods, and beverages for human consumption. From the ubiquitous milk crates to bread trays, from liquid shipping bins to ready-to-display produce containers, reusable packaging has been used for generations around the world to transport dairy, meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables, grains, and other food staples. Billions of reusable packaging products are used each year in North America alone to bring fresh and nutritious foods safely from growing regions to consumers.
More growers, retailers, and other users in the food supply chain are adopting reusable transport packaging because it can provide superior performance and product protection, lower supply chain system costs, and reduce the environmental impact of packaging, among other benefits. And the global governmental policy emphasis on a low-carbon economy and a growing ecologically-conscious public will likely encourage further expansion of reusable packaging in food applications. As an example, the market research firm Mintel published its “Global Packaging Trends for 2016,” suggesting that consumers will increasingly turn to “reusable and repurposable packaging,” citing 63 percent of U.S. consumers believing this to be a “key purchasing driver.”
With the continued growth of reusable packaging applications in the food supply chain, particularly into retail distribution channels, and with greater attention on food safety compliance following the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, leading suppliers and users of reusable packaging took action to strengthen the established record of safe use with these products. In 2014, the industry’s trade organization—the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA)—formed a Food Safety Working Group to document a uniform set of standards and best practices for the handling and cleaning of reusable containers for use with food, including fresh produce, meat, eggs, and other perishables items.
The Food Safety Working Group consisted of retailers, grower-shippers, manufacturers, industry associations, and packaging suppliers for broad representation and coverage of the food supply chain. The group spent a year thoroughly reviewing and researching performance criteria, potential points of failure, best practices, and industry regulations. Key references and guidance came from established food safety models and resources such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs), the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), and the U.S. FDA’s codes for food contact substances and packaging.
In March 2015, the RPA group completed its initial project and issued the document, “Guidelines and Best Practices for the Safe Use of Returnable Containers in Food Supply Chains.” These science-based recommended protocols encompass the washing, handling, storing, packing, labeling, displaying, and collecting of reusable containers.
RPA’s guidelines examine nine different activities of the food supply chain, encompassing the touch points for the reusable packaging and addressing areas for cleaning and monitoring. The activities include:
- Maintenance and surveillance of food safety programs,
- Food defense through secure operations,
- Sanitation during washing,
- Product protection during transportation,
- Proper receiving methods,
- Product storage protection,
- Sound return practices,
- Compliance to use instructions, and
- Effective testing protocols.
The guidelines extend to all users in the supply chain, including suppliers of the reusable packaging, growers and packers of the food product, and retail operations that distribute and handle the packaging. One of the catalysts for creating the RPA standards was a need from retailers to have uniform and documented guidelines to share with members of their supply chains, seeking to bring consistency in the operations and performance.
Guidelines for Retailers
For retailers, the handling practices of reusable containers are important to ensure the integrity of the next use phase in the food distribution system. This is counter to the mindset and approach for one-way packaging in which disposal for waste or recycling is the end activity. For reusable packaging, there is not an end activity, but rather a return process to prepare and re-position the container for a new use in a continuous cycle.
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