Fit-for-purpose food packaging is more than a plain container. It represents livelihoods and the social progress that follows, its use marks the possibility of eliminating food insecurity and its benefits include minimizing health risks from contaminated food and diseases.
In 1909, American journalist and lawyer, Alfred Henry Lewis mused, “there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy”.i And whilst food packaging may have humble origins, its role in promoting hygiene and food safety has played a significant supporting role in the development and advancement of modern societies.ii The complex and interconnected nature of global societies has further highlighted the need for resilient supply chains – enabled by fit-for-purpose packaging – capable of meeting unexpected challenges. Indeed, when it comes to increasing the efficiency of food value chains, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization emphasizes the importance of coherent policies and investments in food packaging.iii
By ensuring hygiene and the safety of food, food packaging plays an instrumental role in driving access to food for all
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 23 million cases of foodborne illness worldwide each year and food safety agencies and authorities have long recognised the very significant role of cross-contamination as the most frequent cause of most foodborne illness. It is why they invest considerable resources to emphasize the importance of preventing cross-contamination of food at all stages of the human food chain.iv
Food packaging plays an important role in preventing such cross-contamination. For example, the modern paper cup was invented with the express purpose of reducing cross-contamination and the incidence of human foodborne disease: Drinking water had become increasingly popular in America in the second half of the 19th century – promoted as a healthy alternative to liquor. Though water was readily available, the shared communal cups used to consume it often transmitted disease, posing a danger to public health. In response, Lawrence Luellen, a lawyer and inventor, crafted a disposable two-piece cup from paper in 1907, whilst Dr. Samuel Crumbine, one of the founding fathers of modern public health, campaigned against the use of common cups as a fight against tuberculosis.v The Covid-19 pandemic has further shown that the hygiene factor of food packaging must be considered when discussing sustainable food systems.
As the EU Council of Ministers recently stated in its submission of 50 priorities for consideration at the UN Food Systems Summit later this year, ensuring the safety of food provided to consumers is of utmost importance.vi Fit-for-purpose packaging plays a key role in achieving this goal as it protects food from chemical, biological and physical impacts, delaying product deterioration, extending shelf life, and supporting food safety. By doing so, packaging also ensures that the resources used to produce food, and the carbon footprint created – equal to roughly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissionsvii – are not wasted.
In 2020, between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger – with the number growing from previous year by over 120 million – largely due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.viii On the wider food supply chains, the larger impact of the pandemic stems from the sudden change in demand, and its disruptive effects on the various actors connecting farm to fork.ix For consumers, the risk of food security becomes more pronounced due to the compounded effects of the pandemic from loss of jobs and livelihoods. Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety poignantly defines this plight in her speech for World Food Safety Day:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not only highlighted the importance of strong health crisis preparedness and prevention mechanisms and supply chains that ensure continued movement of essential goods, but also the crucial importance of universally accessible and affordable safe food. Safe and nutritious food strengthens our immune systems and protects from illness. Safe food is key for food security.”x
The benefits of food packaging extend beyond health and safety, supporting modern life in ways previously unimaginable. Since the 1950s, ready meals have become a staple for many modern households, where working professionals, families, and students are often strapped for time. More recently, journalist Emily Matchar has examined the economics and social implications of healthy and affordable prepared food, enabled by food packaging.xi Safe and convenient ready-made meals are often a boon for families, as they reduce the need for daily food preparation – a responsibility carried mostly by women. Whilst during the 20th century this phenomenon centred mostly on Europe and North America, today it is fast going global as increasing pace of urbanization and growing parity in the work force drive the demand for take-away and ready-made meals.
Resilient food packaging value chains help address the issues created by increased urbanization
As 56 percent of the global population now reside in urban areas – compared to less than 15 percent in the early 1900s – the role of packaging in transporting and distributing food is even more instrumental. Whilst the requirements of keeping an ever-growing urban population supplied with the necessary food and provisions have increased in complexity even during times of relative stability, going forward, maintaining food packaging value chains that are resilient in the face of unexpected climate or other challenges is critical to supporting lives and livelihoods and enabling the availability of safe, hygienic, secure, and affordable food products.
It is for this reason, that the packaging industry was recognised by governments across the world as an essential industry during the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to enabling the continued flow of goods to market shelves, without the right packaging it would have been difficult for cafes and restaurants to provide take-away food in a Covid-secure manner, as acknowledged by the European Environment Agency.xii
Our commitment to a sustainable future
Access to nourishing, safe and healthy food is integral to life. Currently, an unacceptable 9 percent of the global population does not have access to sufficient food.xiii As the EU Council of Ministers highlighted, the UN Food Systems Summit should encourage effective measures to increase the accessibility and affordability of healthy diets through sustainable food systems, including for vulnerable groups. The role that sustainable food packaging is playing helps strengthen our food systems to both improve affordable accessibility to safe food and reduce food loss and waste.
Ultimately, safe food keeps us healthy. It strengthens our communities, powers our economies, and protects our planet. Food packaging helps in all these aims so that we can reach the point that everyone can get good food every day. We believe everybody has the right to safe food.
[i] The Day of Discontent, Alfred Henry Lewis, Cosmopolitan Magazine 1906, pg. 603
[iv] Five Keys to Safer Food Manual, WHO 2006. https://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/consumer/manual_keys.pdf
[v] The Unnatural History of the Dixie Cup, Smithsonian Magazine 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-unnatural-history-of-the-dixie-cup-119828457/
[vi] Draft Council Conclusions on the EU's priorities for the 2021 United
Nations Food Systems Summit, Council of the European Union 2021. https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/49927/draft-council-conclusions-on-the-eu-s-priorities-for-the-2021-united.pdf
[vii] Driven to Waste, WWF & Tesco, 2021. https://wwf.panda.org/discover/our_focus/food_practice/food_loss_and_waste/driven_to_waste_global_food_loss_on_farms/
[ix] Food Supply Chains and COVID-19: Impacts and Policy Lessons, OECD 2020. https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/food-supply-chains-and-covid-19-impacts-and-policy-lessons-71b57aea/
[x] World Food Safety Day: Statement by Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, European Commission 2021. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_21_2880
[xi] Emily Matchar, The Atlantic 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/04/healthy-affordable-fast-food-feminisms-holy-grail/274948/
[xii] COVID-19 and Europe’s environment: impacts of a global pandemic, European Environment Agency 2020. https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/covid-19-and-europe-s/covid-19-and-europes-environment
[xiii] United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Food Waste Index Report 2021. Nairobi. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/unep-food-waste-index-report-2021