A Brief History of Packaging Regulations and How they Affect Designers Today

by Mike Gondek on 02/21/2017 | 5 Minute Read

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We all have seen consumer products with net weight, identity and distribution statements, but who regulates the size, position, verbiage, readability and other standards of the type?

Who regulates packaging?

There are a number of agencies tasked with regulating packaging. Each has the ability to demand a product recall or send a warning letter to update or even remove packaging. Crossover exists among agencies on certain products, such as seafood and eggs, although some agencies have regulations that cover all products. Adding to the confusion, agency names (listed below) imply specialization, but names do not reflect their sole responsibility—nor does this list cover the entire universe of regulatory agencies.

Why the packaging industry lacks better regulation

Very few design schools teach labeling design regulations, even though designers need this experience to avoid product recall. The government agencies do not have certification or training programs, and when contacting them they often will not provide any assistance or they’ll give you another number to leave a message that they rarely reply to. The NIST, TTB and AAFCO are more helpful, but unless you have a direct number to one of the senior staff at the FDA or USDA, they likely will not assist you.

Many fear calling regulatory agencies in fear of drawing attention to their products, and therefore questions go unanswered and companies simply make their best effort. Some smaller manufacturers try to fly under the radar and even though national brands may have a trained quality control staff, there are areas of the regulations that lack clear definition and get left to interpretation. When someone receives a warning letter or recall, they prefer to keep that confidential, rather than train their staff in what could be done better. The FDA most often does not publish labeling violations with the exception of KIND Bars. Ownership for responsible labeling often does not happen until after an incident.

The costs, frequency, and impact of recalls

Products are recalled every day. A sticker or repackaging can solve the issue, but when the cost is too high, such as with frozen foods, they might be destroyed. A warning letter gives a certain amount of time to correct minor issues, and more often times than not, those products end up in the clearance section of your store, next to items with an expiration date. There are also voluntary recalls, such as Sudafed when the word “NOT NOT” appeared twice in the directions.

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Will labeling regulation increase in the future?

The amount of regulation and certifications impacting package design will only continue to increase. Consumers will always have a desire to know as much as possible about products, especially edible products. Whether this need-to-know is justified or exploited, it will continually drive and evolve regulation and labeling. The physical labeling real estate a package has keeps regulations from getting out of control, though. Pesticides often come with paged booklets attached to the exterior of the package—and my hope is that we do not get that far for all products.

The recent issue of genetic engineering labeling is an excellent example of what we can expect for regulatory labeling in the future. The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that tests and certifies products for bio-engineering. Their certification detects the presence of certain bio-engineering but cannot, and never will, 100% guarantee a product is entirely free from bio-engineering. Some manufacturers have their products certified Non-GMO with good intentions, and others do this for company appearance. Some activists remain well-informed and able to debate the issue well, but they turn a blind eye to any facts supporting the benefits of bio-engineering.

There have been studies on bio-engineering, mostly with the intention to discredit the usage of this technology. No reports of ill effects from genetically modified food have ever been documented. The only conclusive results of bioengineered food are virus resistance, less greenhouse gas emissions, and less water usage, which will be important considering the increasing water shortages in the Western United States. UC Berkley’s David Zilberman says the solution is straightforward and that regulators who fail to approve more GMOs are wasting one of the biggest tools of modern agriculture.

I sincerely doubt anyone will ever intentionally create something that causes public harm as they and their families have to eat the food also. From ancient mythology to modern television and movies, we all are captivated by stories about our food supply becoming tainted or and turns us into the walking dead or some abnormal creature. The truth is we have been consuming genetically engineered food for over a century.

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What would a future without regulations look like?

Without regulation, manufacturers would utilize untested and less costly ingredients. Countries that currently have less regulation can provide a look into a future without regulation. In 2008 the Chinese milk scandal involved adding melamine to increase protein levels in infant formula. As a result of the melamine scandal, 6 infants died of kidney failure and 54,000 were hospitalized.

The requirement of adding nutrition facts in 1989 to food packaging caused a surge in packaging/branding redesigns, as new printing plates had to be made anyway. The nutrition panel regulations have been updated again and the compliance date is July 2018. Without regulation, there would likely be less updates to packaging and brand design, especially among smaller manufacturers looking to maximize usage and minimize costs.

Additionally, there would be more exaggerated and false claims made on packaging. Claims would be in larger type as the current rule for claims to be less than 200% the size of the statement of identity would no longer be enforced. More salt and sugar would be added to foods to drive sales by indulgence, and salt additionally preserves food giving longer shelf life and profits—while claims such as “light,” “high,” and “excellent,” would be unregulated and abused.

How can designers best work with regulations?

With there being more regulations than in the past and tighter deadlines, a designer needs to know as much as they can. Designers who do not know the basics can easily create designs that are either missing required items such as the statement of identity, or their Net Contents statement will be lacking size or clearance. Educating yourself on these small details is an enormous design advantage.

At Kaleidoscope, we encourage everyone to continue to learn and maintain best practices. Many design agencies do not train their staff on regulations, leaving the responsibility to the client. We find that training our staff reduces rounds of revisions in the long run, and opens strategic branding opportunities. To be an expert you will need to invest time on a regular basis over years, but luckily everyone can learn the basics with some effort. Labeling regulations can easily be misinterpreted, so trust what you read and always question what you hear. Whatever your situation, I encourage everyone in the packaging industry to thoroughly read—and reread—the regulations.

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