When it comes to food safety, there is a long chain of custody for both raw and processed foods:

  • farm to processing
  • processing to packaging
  • packaging to transporting
  • transporting to store shelves or coolers
  • store to consumer consumption

At each step of the way, safe handling of perishable goods needs to be foremost in the minds of its handlers. Whether it’s keeping food within a safe temperature range or ensuring air can flow throughout the packaging (i.e., fresh produce), thoughtful consideration has to be given to each element. It can be especially challenging in today’s competitive landscape where efficiency and the lowest cost solution weigh heavily in decision-making.

Unitizing is not a new idea and it is prevalent across the industry. Pallet loads allow companies to distribute their product efficiently. It also lowers handling, labor and transportation costs, and streamlines delivery. With perishable goods to unitize, there are greater considerations as product is moved from warehouse to destination. Let’s talk best practices when it comes to unitizing perishable goods.

Food Safety has Many Definitions
While perishable foods have special safety concerns—which we’ll discuss a little later—it’s essential to start with building a strong and secure pallet load.

The primary goal for any distributor is to ensure the product arrives safely, where safety is a multifaceted term. Not only does food need to arrive without pathogens or other harmful microorganisms, but it also needs to be in the best condition and highest quality for the consumer. Safety can also mean protection from weather and/or people tampering with the pallet load. A pallet should be properly and securely unitized to prevent toppling in transit.

In the 1970s, stretch wrap revolutionized the packaging industry. Its flexibility and strength coupled with the increased efficiency of unitizing loads intended for the same destination changed packaging across dozens of industries. It also was and still is the most cost-effective solution for a variety of applications.                                                             

Despite stretch wrap’s inherent advantages, it has to be executed in accordance with best practices. Let’s walk through how unitizing with stretch wrap—with a pallet wrapping machine or hand wrapping—can enhance each aspect of safety we discussed above.

Fresh, Safe and High Quality
In foodservice, safe handling of food product is first and foremost. Producing and delivering a high-quality product to consumers in an efficient and attractive manner is also part of the equation.

Traditional stretch film—with a full web of stretch film—can be used for packaged food products that are do not require airflow or temperature-controlled transportation. For perishable food packaging, traditional stretch wrap can suffocate fresh-picked produce, causing it to spoil quickly. With frozen food or warm food products, condensation can develop on the inside of the wrap.

There are options to incorporate breathability and airflow into stretch wrap packaging. The first is to utilize a specialized stretch film with built-in ventilation. A second option is to purchase a pallet-wrapping machine that can engineer standard stretch film, slitting it into stretch film bands. The stretch wrap is applied in the same manner as a full web of stretch film, securing the pallet load while still allowing air to flow in and out of the packaging.

Protection from External Elements
One of the primary goals of end-of-line packaging is to ensure the product arrives at its destination in the same condition as it left the warehouse.

If a pallet will be exposed to the elements (i.e., rain, snow, cold, heat) for any length of time, or to further prevent tampering with a pallet load, it’s a smart idea to consider adding a top sheet dispenser to the production line.

A top sheet can be secured neatly to the pallet with the stretch wrap, and it can even be done in-line to optimize efficiency. To do this correctly, the top sheet is added after the side layers of wrapping have been completed. Why? One of the primary purposes is to protect the product from rain and other weather, and when the top sheet is added after the side wraps, any water will spill off the top and run down the side of the wrapped package. If the top sheet is added before the side layers, you run the risk of having the water run off the top and trickle down inside the stretch wrapping, potentially damaging the product.

By its nature, a unitized pallet load discourages tampering because it’s immediately apparent it something is amiss with the packaging. There are tamper evident packaging labels and other products available on the market to further secure the load.

Secure Load for Transport
While consumers may not see end-of-line packaging, a unitized and stretch wrapped pallet load keeps the product in place and protected during transportation. Whether a pallet is being placed on a truck, train or plane, handlers have to be confident the load won’t shift or topple and create a safety hazard that will potentially damage the product.

Leveraging a pallet-wrapping matchine (automatic or semi-automatic) can help tailor the end-of-line packaging to the specific pallet load. For example, a heavy, oversized pallet load will require a higher film tension to be securely packaged. Today's advanced stretch wrap machines allow for operators to design, customize and truly engineer the right stretch wrap packaging suited for the particular product. One advantage of an automated stretch wrapper is the ability to apply stretch film in a consistent manner.

Final Thoughts
Safety comes first both in the food distribution and packaging industries. Whether it’s preventing injury on the production line, safe operation of machinery, creating a safe package for transport or ensuring the safety and quality of the product itself, every part matters. The end-of-line packaging is an important part of this process and ultimate goal. Stretch wrapping is a flexible solution for the end-of-line packaging that can overcome many of the packaging challenges of the food industry. Take these best practices and tailor them to your specific applications to find the safest and most efficient packaging solution.

Graham Nicholson is the sales executive for Phoenix Wrappers and has more than 25 years of experience in the stretch wrapping industry.