That’s a Wrap – Food Packaging Basics


Good packaging doesn’t just happen; it’s designed and delivered. And even a well-designed package requires a significant investment in quality equipment to fill, close, label, inspect and case the product. This section presents a brief overview of the major items associated with the package and the packaging system.

A Well-Designed Package

Good packaging doesn’t just happen; it’s designed and delivered. And even a well-designed package requires a significant investment in quality equipment to fill, close, label, inspect and case the product. This section presents a brief overview of the major items associated with the package and the packaging system.

A Well-Designed Package

A well-designed package must achieve several goals simultaneously. First, it must protect the product from environmental factors that degrade product quality. Second, it should complement the use of the product. Third, it must present the product in a desirable and appealing fashion. Fourth, it has to survive the rigors of the distribution system. Fifth, and last, it has to “go the distance” until the product is consumed.

Three Packaging Types

The primary package is the package that a single-serving or standard amount of the product comes in. A secondary package is typically a carton or a case that encloses a bundle or grouping of primary containers. Tertiary packaging typically refers to pallets, slip sheets, and stretch wraps that deliver unit loads to a warehousing environment.

Primary Packaging

The major environmental factors contributing to product degradation are light, oxygen, moisture, and heat. The selection of barrier properties in the primary package is critical to ensuring that the package protects the product. The design of the package may influence how the product is dispensed and stored in the consumer’s household. Whether the product is designed for multiple-use delivery or single-serve (one-time) dispensing, package shape, closure, and ability to reseal completely are all important to consider. Eye-catching graphics, the use of color, and the shape of the package all contribute to the appeal of the product and the package. It should come as no surprise that the package can oftentimes be one of the best means for encouraging a trial purchase.

Secondary Packaging

Keeping the package intact until the point of sale is a job in itself. Efficient systems for grouping, bundling, and stacking products for shipment are critical to successful operations. But not all approaches are equally effective, nor does any single approach apply in all circumstances. A system tailored to handle the primary package while delivering protection against abrasion, puncture, crushing, and dropping damage is a critical part of the mix. And, while it’s possible to make an outer container that’s impervious to these challenges, it’s always a tradeoff between protection and easy-opening features that improve product acceptance.

In many warehouses and “club” stores, the secondary packaging is partially opened and serves as a display unit for the product. It’s also common to see products that are being promoted shipped in specially-designed display cases, which are types of secondary packaging.

Tertiary Packaging

Before the rise of warehouse and “club” stores, most products were shipped in brown, corrugated cases stacked upon wooden pallets. The pallet load was typically tied together with string or tape to help build a stable pallet load.

In the last twenty years, this delivery system has been severely challenged by the club and warehouse stores, who object to the large amount of corrugated material that has to be removed and disposed of. As a result, a combination of display-ready cases integrated with plastic stretch-wrapping material has become more commonplace.

Some retailers require the inclusion of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on the external pallet load. RFID tags are small microchips that may be applied to either a pallet load or, in some instances, individual cases so that automated equipment may scan, identify, record, and track incoming and outgoing shipments without the need for visual identification methods.

Designing the System

It’s in the selection, installation, and start-up of equipment where the “rubber meets the road.” The design and implementation of the packaging system usually involve trade-offs among operational speed, crewing levels, and material supply issues. Layout is strongly impacted by material handling and operator line-of-sight requirements. Operator skill-set requirements, training, and the control system interface may significantly impact overall line efficiency and reliability.


Recent advances in automation, control, and changeover tooling have all tended to reduce the need for operators to full-time monitor packaging machinery. However, we’re still far from the “lights out” factory of the future once predicted in the early 1980s.

Fewer crew means more emphasis on communication and line-of-sight control. This factor is often overlooked in the design of high-speed lines. Operator response times are significantly improved if operators can communicate both visually and verbally with each other and if they can see upstream and downstream disturbances in product flow through the line. Building layouts that include intervening walls and/or different operating floor levels may oftentimes be necessary for biological or processing reasons, and they can create operator inefficiencies. Where walls must be installed, adequate windows should be provided, and communication systems between operators have proven effective in multi-level operations.

Material Handling On-line

Another critical component of line design is allowing for adequate access and delivery of packaging materials and supplies, plus the removal of generated waste and trash. Having adequate traffic aisles and “staging” areas immediately adjacent to usage points is critical for the proper operation of the line. If travel distances from storage to use points are especially long, delays in restocking the line (and resulting downtime) may be expected. It’s also critical to anticipate where and when a catastrophic failure of a downstream component might require an expedient way of disposing of a large amount of product. For example, in a baking operation, over 30 minutes of production may be in transit through the ovens. If the downstream portion of the line were to “shut down,” the product must be cleared from the line to prevent burning or loss of product. Appropriate accumulators, dropouts, and diverters should be positioned to assist in this situation.

Automation and Training

While there have been significant improvements in automation and control systems over the years, it ultimately comes down to competent, trained, and motivated operators and line personnel. The design of the packaging line cannot be solely focused on equipment selection and throughput. Consideration around operator requirements, control system complexity, and the availability and adequacy of training programs must all be built into the packaging system from the beginning and not as an afterthought.


Packaging system designs must take all of these goals and factors into account while delivering cost-effective and efficient systems with a high degree of reliability and safety. Putting systems like this together is both an art and a science.


Vice President

Call 404.564.3980 | Email Sean | View Profile

Looking for an expert?

To connect with one of our knowledgeable team members for a media opportunity, please contact Matt Shank via phone or email. We look forward to sharing our expertise!

What are you searching for?