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Provenance of the Package

June 28, 2010

We accept that packages communicate certain attributes about a product – flavour, color, image, uses and so on.  The product will generally declare who manufactured it and where they are located – whether it is a domestic or an imported product.

However, there may other aspects of a product’s provenance that we might deem important in making a purchase decision.  One such example is how the product has been handled and/or stored from the time it left the manufacturer’s plant to the time it arrives on the supermarket shelf.

Certain types of products – usually foods or pharmaceuticals – need to be transported under temperature-controlled conditions to ensure they arrive in the consumer’s hands in good condition.  Meats, dairy products and frozen foods are typical everyday examples.

Here’s an example of why knowing how a product has been kept might be important. Chocolate melts at about body temperature.  Chocolate products can normally be merchandised on shelf at ambient temperatures without any problems.  However, exposure to summertime temperatures will cause the chocolate to melt.  If the chocolate has been produced in a climate-controlled plant and is shipped in a similarly climate-controlled or refrigerated truck, it should make its way to the consumer without problems. If, on the other hand, the refrigeration system on the truck failed during a summertime shipment, it’s possible the product could melt before it arrives at its destination.  Because the packaging is usually opaque, no one will know it has melted until a consumer opens the package.

A chocolate bar that has melted and re-hardened will most likely still be edible and deliver the desired flavour.  However, for meat products or frozen foods, thawing while in transit could present an opportunity for bacteria or mould to grow, which could render the products either unsafe to eat or, at the very least, unsalable because they no longer look appealing/appetizing.  In the case of a pharmaceutical product, such as a vaccine, not maintaining proper storage conditions could render the product completely ineffective.

In today’s posting, I’m going to discuss two technologies that can provide evidence that products may have been exposed to storage conditions that are outside the recommended range.

The first of these is a technology known as thermochromic inks.  These are inks that are formulated to change color at preselected temperatures.  On the COORS LIGHT cans, there are inks used in printing the mountains that turn blue when the product is chilled to proper drinking temperature. This is one application for thermochromics.

COORS Light Cold-Certified Packaging

COORS Light Cold-Certified Packaging

On the COORS LIGHT cans, the thermochromic inks are reversible, meaning they will turn blue when cold, but revert to a colorless state when the product warms up beyond the set temperature.

There is another type of thermochromic ink that only changes color once, and does NOT revert back to its original state.

In use, these inks are used to print a message that is invisible as long as the product is kept below the selected temperature – e.g., the freezing point.  Once the product temperature crosses this threshold, the message becomes visible and permanent.  The message could read, for example, “Consume Immediately” or “Potentially Unsafe” to alert consumers the product has been stored under inappropriate conditions.

Here is an example of a label using thermochromic technology. When the product has been exposed to conditions outside its normal handling temperatures, the word “Safe” becomes “UNsafe” and bars appear in the UPC code to flag this at checkout.

Food Safety Label printed with Irreversible Thermochromic ink technology

Are there other technologies that could be used?

One possible technology is to combine thermocouples with RFID tags so they can be used to monitor temperatures and identify out-of-range storage events and record these with time/date stamps that can be read as the product moves through the supply chain.

This might work for industrial or commercial use, where RFID reading technology is available, but I have concerns about when the average consumer will have access to such technology. So the thermochromic technology provides something to fill that gap with an indelible, human-readable code.

Do YOU have any ideas about this?  If so, I’d like to hear from you.

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