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Keeping your batch codes in place on frozen foods and ready meals

Keeping your batch codes in place on frozen foods and ready meals

The frozen foods and ready meals sector is enjoying healthy growth. Manufacturers could look to their coding and marking equipment to ensure they are in good shape to grow with the sector.

How is the industry growing?

The UK frozen foods and ready meals industry is seeing a change, partly thanks to changing demographics.  

The UK is already a key market for the industry, as it contributes to 46% of all ready meals eaten in Europe. (Mintel 2017)

An increase in single person households and active lifestyles are contributing to a growth in premium ready meals, where time-poor consumers want a quality meal but don’t have the time to cook from scratch.

As a result, the industry is expected to continue to grow to £5.6 billion by 2019 (Mintel 2017) – in particular the chilled soups, pastry, frozen ready meal categories.

Alongside this predicted growth, manufacturers already experience some tough challenges when it comes to batch coding their frozen foods and ready meals.

How printing of variable information is affected 

Legislation is becoming increasingly stringent on labelling of food products: for instance, Country of Origin information may require an extra line of print, so manufacturers may need to reconfigure their packaging design to accommodate the extra line, or upgrade their coding equipment to deliver more lines of print. 

Manufacturers already operate to tight margins. Instead of washing down a line to accept a new product run, they may simply move coding equipment to a cleaned line, which saves time and cost. Light, portable printers that are easy to move and set up can help to reduce both cost and downtime.

Multiple recipes and SKUs may result in several short runs with frequent changeovers. In addition, retailers may each demand a different format for their batch codes. The perishable nature of frozen foods and ready meals means that they cannot always be reworked, so it is essential that the correct batch code is selected first time, every time. In this instance, a simple user interface, which is intuitive like a mobile phone will be an advantage.

Specific challenges for batch printing in frozen food and ready meals production 

Ensuring that a best before code is correct is only half the story: it must also be resilient to extremes of conditions during production and end-use.  You can test the resilience of batch codes on products in your own freezer: does the code come off on your finger?  In order to meet regulations it should stay put.

Printed codes are expected to stick onto a range of packaging materials, such as plastic trays with flexible film lids, card sleeves, tubs, pouches and flexible film bags. Each material will have a different interaction with an ink, so it is important to test the ink in your coder on all your packaging materials to ensure that it will adhere and stay put throughout your products’ lifecycles.

The condition of the packaging just before printing takes place is also an important consideration. For example, ready meal filling lines may leave a thin layer of oil, grease or condensation on the packaging, which some ink jet coder inks are able to penetrate to leave a durable code.

Post-fill processes may also have an effect on the printed code. For instance, plastic film will flex during cooking or retort processes, and blast freezing may again may affect the adherence of the printed code onto plastic. Inks need to stay flexible to accommodate the movement of the material; if they become brittle then the ink may flake away, taking your code with it.

As the industry grows, ensure you are equipped to grow with it and continue to comply with coding legislation.