Beyond changing consumer behaviors, refrigerated and frozen foods manufacturers face multiple layers of coding challenges due to their harsher production environments. Additionally, hygienic standards require frequent washdown and the use of cleaning chemicals that can affect coding equipment. Printers must be ready for uninterrupted production lines at high speeds.

That’s why product identification in the form of date codes, lot codes and batch codes is a crucial step food and beverage manufacturers must take to ensure accurate tracking throughout the supply chain, and one which is necessary in order to trace and recall defective or contaminated products.

Here’s how these challenges can be addressed with smart coding solutions:

Environmental challenges

The frozen food industry typically employs two types of freezing processes—mechanical, with temperatures as low as -30°F, and cryogenic, as low as -160°F. Cold, humid and wet environments can impact code legibility and adherence, and thus finding the right ink requires special attention. While a broad range of inks exists, only a few are specifically engineered to achieve the best adhesion, durability and printer performance in colder environments.

In some manufacturing processes, a cold product may be poured into a warmer package, or an open door may allow warm air into a cold manufacturing environment. Changes in temperature along the production line, combined with humidity in the air, can cause condensation on the products before and after coding, thereby impacting an ink’s performance. 

Additionally, the washdown process may leave moisture on the equipment and surrounding production lines. Water in the production environment can act as a solvent, inadvertently removing ink codes before they have a chance to fully dry.

When dealing with these challenges, several solutions exist. First, it may be possible to alter production processes to get better ink performance. The printer could be moved to a location on the line where condensation is less likely to form on the packaging, thus no longer requiring an ink that must penetrate condensation. In some situations, the printer can be moved outside of the cold and humid environment to another location in the facility where special inks may not be needed. If moving the printer is not feasible, a manufacturer should consider inks engineered to perform well in cold, wet or humid temperatures. Special ink formulations designed to penetrate condensation to print clearly on the packaging are also available. Additionally, various inks offer strong adhesion to resist transferring onto adjacent products or packaging.

Printing technology considerations

High-throughput environments require printers and inks that can keep up with line speeds, often while printing multi-line codes. Continuous inkjet printers (CIJ) can produce reliable quality codes in such non-stop production environments. Ideal for marking on flat or curved surfaces, such as packaging for refrigerated and frozen food, CIJ technology is a non-contact printing method that utilizes a range of CIJ inks to print on almost any substrate, even in low temperatures and high humidity processing facilities.  

In order to achieve quality codes, with or without specialized inks, food manufacturers should work with a marking and coding partner that offers solutions designed specifically for their unique manufacturing conditions. A strong partner leverages their extensive research, development and validation testing to determine the most suitable inks and equipment placements based on the manufacturer’s specific application and environmental needs.

Supply chain traceability capabilities are only as good as the quality of the code and its ability to withstand the challenges of the manufacturing and distribution channels. The consequences of poor quality codes and the inability to trace product can be dramatic. In the event of a recall or product alert, real-time, accurate, legible and durable date/time/lot coding can speed the identification of affected products and help minimize the event’s impact on consumers and the exposure for the manufacturer and brand. By working with an experienced vendor with advanced inks and robust printing solutions, food manufacturers can be ready to face both the market growth created by varying consumer behaviors as well as challenging circumstances that arise in manufacturing and distribution environments to stay one step ahead and help future-proof their coding operations.