• Retail, Business

Food should be considered a priority commodity, and packaging is an important part of that context

FoodDrinkEurope supports the European food and drink industry to make products that are not only safe and delicious, but also contribute to a greener planet, healthier living and a thriving economy. According to Patricia Lopez, Senior Manager Circular Economy and Environmental Information, ensuring both food safety and affordability is a delicate balance. Packaging is vital in this context and its role is often taken for granted.

European food is recognized for its high quality. This is due in large part to the regulations initiated by FoodDrinkEurope. “We are the bridge between the different parts of the food industry and the solutions that policy makers come up with. We not only talk to commissioners and members of parliament, but also to farmers and everyone along the value chain,” she begins.

FoodDrinkEurope informs members about the industry’s progress in advancing environmental sustainability at a company level. While a lot has changed in this area in recent years, companies are also becoming increasingly cautious in how they talk about their contribution to the transition towards more sustainable food systems.

“What I do specifically is to devise ways of communicating positively about how the industry wants to seize the future of packaging, what we need for that future to happen and how EU policy ideas can meet those intentions. On a day-to-day basis, I educate people on new policy decisions, organize meetings with members and see what they want to say on specific areas. These are then taken to a more strategic level on matters around sustainability or circular economy,” Lopez adds.

Food sustainability standards ultimately affect affordability

There seems to be a balancing act between making food as safe as possible while keeping it affordable. Recent statements by a German minister opining that food in Germany doesn't have to be so cheap might sound disarming at first. Analyzing this statement closer from the perspective of FoodDrinkEurope, however, shows it is more to do with European society internalizing the environmental cost of food, which is a very valid discussion.

“One of my favorite foods from my homeland in Spain is a specific kind of anchovy, and they come in a tin,” says Lopez. “They’re more expensive because of the excellent factory conditions, which factors into the quality, which in turn factors into the price; the tin that these anchovies come in makes them last a lot longer. What makes our policies so important is that we have influence in setting food sustainability standards that will eventually affect affordability.”

The need for good, safe packaging is still a fundamental issue

Food is especially important in times of crisis, as by definition non-perishable food can be consumed at a later date. It allows for people to have more control over what they’re going to eat, and when. While FoodDrinkEurope is not in the place to assess the likely impact of the current Ukrainian crisis on the European food industry, it is becoming apparent that certain markets, like wheat, will be affected. The need for good, safe packaging remains as important an issue as ever.

“Food should be considered a priority commodity no matter what happens, and packaging is an important part of that context. Packaging affects how food gets to its destination, how long it can live on the shelf, and so on. There is sometimes an issue with conceiving packaging as a separate element from the product it contains, but it is not because it's sold together, and it's put on the on the market as a single unit. There is always a need to remind others of that,” Lopez reminds us.

One solution does not fit all and there are misconceptions about what the best one is

There are different areas where the EU is moving forward on packaging. For instance, there are talks about more rigorous standards for recycling plastics as the food and drinks industry is the largest user of plastics in the EU, but those talks are very much still in the early stages. Scientists in Europe are also figuring out how to reincorporate more recycled materials in packaging, which is very sensitive because of the safety requirements that wood pulp in packaging requires.

“Wood is a lot more recyclable than plastic, but it requires a different set of regulations for it to make real sense as a total replacement. This balancing act is what we do, every day,” she states.

Moreover, packaging helps in the area of logistics, as well-designed packaging can transport food in a more organized way and therefore incur lower emissions. What materials to use to reduce carbon emissions is another important topic because plastics inherently use fossil fuels. In many cases, these plastics unfortunately end up in landfills or end up being burned.

“For example, what would be the effect if people were to substitute plastics for paper or glass, which each have their own emissions? This is called lifecycle assessment; specific environmental impacts are evaluated from all angles, at every link on the value chain. While there is no ‘one solution fits all’ in the packaging industry, there are often misconceptions about what the best solution is,” Lopez says.

It’s easy to forget how much people take food packaging for granted

“Packaging has made our lives easier. Easier for storage, transportation, and for the end user in times of peace and in times of crisis. As a consumer myself, it’s interesting to see the end product of what I work on every day on so many shelves in so many of the aisles of whatever store I’m in,” she says.

It is verifiably true that Patricia and FoodDrinkEurope’s work is making a big difference: packaging gives consumers more choices and more options. People can buy as much of the product as they need or they can simply buy more and use it next time. That might sound pedantic, but it’s easy to forget how much people take packaging as an entity for granted.

“Everyone has to eat,” Lopez points out. “And packaging means you can trade or even just simply carry more food more easily. If more people can get the food they want and need for a price they can afford – be it my favorite Spanish anchovies or a tin of canned food to someone in a warzone – the better off this world will be.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss the role packaging has in enabling accessible, affordable and safe food in an uncertain world. The articles are published ahead of our virtual roundtable.

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