Long read

Tracking the change: innovations in food and drink printing and labelling

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

QR codes, lasers and sustainability act as major drivers for printing and labelling innovation
QR codes, lasers and sustainability act as major drivers for printing and labelling innovation

Related tags Printing Labelling Sustainability

With the advent of new technologies and concerns surrounding sustainability in the food and drink supply chain, we explore the latest developments in printing and labelling.

Scan the QR code

Food and drink manufacturers are already well on their way towards more in depth labelling systems that allow their consumers to see and understand the impact their products have on the planet.

One such producer is Spirit of Manchester Distillery, who has worked with label manufacturer The Label Makers to trial new tech that allows the drinks firm to share more information on the product than can physically fit on the label – without having to resort to an unreadably small font.

A QR code for the Food Manufacture Excellence Awards website
An example of a QR code. This one will take you to our awards webiste

A variable data QR code is printed on the rear of each bottle of Spirit’s premium tipple Manchester Gin which, when scanned, will show the bottle’s full carbon footprint – from the distillery process, ingredients used and information about the company, to serving suggestions for the product.

Commenting on the new direction for its gin, Spirit’s head of marketing Fiona King said: “We have proved that this groundbreaking technology works, and that going forward many businesses will be able to accurately measure the unique carbon footprint of their products, as well as giving consumers full environmental transparency when choosing a product to purchase.”

The trial makes use of The Label Makers’ Xeikon CX 3 digital press, enabling each label to have an individually printed QR code that is further embellished via its ABG Digicon Series 3 label finisher.

Arguably a more pressing concern for manufacturers is the introduction of the new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging​ – from March 2026, any business which puts primary or shipment packaging onto the market is required to label packaging with a 'recycle’ or 'do not recycle’ label. A year later, the same requirements will come into play for plastic film.

Under EPR, brands and importers (producers) face new reporting responsibilities. Large producers will need to submit data twice a year and pay EPR fees, while smaller producers will need to report once a year but are not liable for fees.

“For those that do not already include recycling labels on their packaging, design changes need to start soon,”​ said Margaret Bates, executive director at non-profit OPRL (On-Pack Recycling Label). “But the first step is to determine whether your packaging is recyclable.

“OPRL bases its metrics on the number of local authorities recycling packaging materials from households, the ability for the material to be sorted and the availability of end markets.

“The OPRL label is currently the only label compliant with EPR rules but, from 2026, businesses will be permitted to use it independently – as long as they are confident that recycling claims are accurate. OPRL will continue to provide expert labelling advice for its members.”

These changes will of course lead to challenges for producers in the short-term – not least the cost of changing packaging and labelling to ensure compliance – but Bates was confident the move would build a more resilient, less impactful packaging sector.

“Earlier this year, we surveyed producers, and found that almost 60% agree that EPR will be a game-changer for the packaging industry,”​ she added. “However, while 71% are mindful that they will need to label consumer packaging with recycling information under EPR, only 57% have confidence in how to apply this.

“However hard we work to produce effective, environmentally friendly packaging, we will only succeed if consumers place it in the right bin. Despite the challenges, a standard system for labelling will go a long way to reducing confusion, increasing recycling and diverting more material back into use.”

A question of legibility

With all this work going into making sure labels carry as much data as they possibly can, for any producer ready to send their products out into the wild, the question remains: can those labels still be read at every part of the supply chain?

Will that label be able to withstand the trials of overnight trips in the back of a truck, or resist the temperature-controlled environment in which the product is stored in? And if those labels should fail, what could the cost be to manufacturers?

Labels printed on Printronix machines

The frozen food sector is a hotbed for all these issues which has come into greater focus as demand grows – the global frozen food market is expected to be worth more than $500bn by 2030 and over 400,000 more shoppers switched to frozen over the pandemic.

“More than ever, barcode labels need to read accurately​,” explained Andy Edwards, customer application engineer, TSC Printronix Auto ID. “Food manufacturers continually risk chargeback fines from retailers for unreadable or error-prone barcodes. In order to minimise compliance fines and remain competitive, frozen goods need to be clearly and legibly labelled to withstand supply chain journeys.

“Barcode labels for frozen food must be printed when the freezing process is done, which means printers must be able to function in extremely cold temperatures. Another key consideration is label material used in cold chain applications, specifically adhesives. Labels must withstand very low temperatures and remain stuck to goods while in transit through the cold chain.”

As Edwards tells it, it’s not uncommon for one label in 1,000 to grade below specifications. While a seemingly insignificant number in the grand scheme of things, each one of those failed labels runs the risk to landing the manufacturer with a fine – if exporting to the US, retailers charge $20 for unreadable labels, which could expose manufacturers to upwards of $2000/month in fines.

Label quality doesn’t just impact profitability it also affects brand reputation and productivity.

“To minimise chargeback risks, it’s worth considering barcode validation and verification technology,”​ Edwards added. “TSC Printronix Auto ID’s ODV-2D printers, for example, are ideal for highly regulated organisations in the cold chain industry as they can print and verify labels down to 23°F (-5°C).

“They inspect and grade the quality of printed barcodes in a single pass. They automatically back up and overstrike any bad labels without operator intervention, keeping enterprise moving efficiently.”

Allergen labelling regulations

Regulations play an important part in how labels are designed and the information that can be included on them. One of the most important is the presence of allergens within the product on the ingredients list and whenever this is missing or accidentally misleading, it can lead to very damaging and very expensive recalls.

The introduction of Natasha’s Law​ heralded a greater focus of allergen labelling across the food and drink sector, with the launch of the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) review of precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) the latest piece of legislative upheaval food and drink manufacturers need to be mindful of.

Julian Abel, co-founder at sauce manufacturer Nowt Poncy, told Food Manufacture just how much trouble PAL has caused his and other small businesses and the lack of guidance being given by the FSA.

“As a small business, we use the same suppliers for ingredients as they become trusted in their contents. Having said this, more and more often data specification sheets for any new ingredients use a ‘may contain’ statement. We have a due diligence to follow through with these statements and add them to our own labels.

Jools & Karen
Nowt Poncy Food Company co-founders Karen Walker and Julian Abel

The ‘may contains’ statement seems to be used as a catch all statement, which isn’t useful to us as a manufacturer. It is our understanding that ‘may contain’ statements, known as alibi statements, are not legally binding. Should there be an issue with an allergen causing an illness (or worse), this will not stand up in court.

“The SALSA standard that we are accredited with states that clean down procedures should be adequate enough to eradicate any allergen that was present when the ingredient, and by association the product made with that ingredient, was manufactured, hence making the ‘may contain’ statement useless.”

Abel explained that the FSA and Trading Standards are enforcing the label contents but not giving advice as to what is required. As he understands it, the only thing they say definitively is that the allergy statement must be a particular size, that he cannot use a ‘blanket’ statement and that allergens are shown in bold.

“We have to believe that the information we are being given by suppliers regarding the allergen content of their ingredients is correct,”​ he continued. “Unfortunately, given the amount of recalls from the FSA surrounding incorrect allergen labelling, it would indicate that not everyone is aware of how to label their products.

“If there is any doubt, it falls to the small business to conduct allergen testing, which is an additional cost, and the cost cannot be recouped from the ingredient manufacturer if their labelling was incorrect in the first place, i.e. the use of the ‘may contains’ statement was used as a catch all!”

“The whole thing is a lottery with no one taking full responsibility for advising businesses but with subjective enforcement resulting in the cost and responsibility falling on small businesses.”

Sustainable labelling materials

Making labels resilient to the environment that they operate within has been a consideration for manufacturers since the first barcode was slapped on a pack of chewing gum in 1974. But the driving force behind label innovation has changed in the past 50 years.

Now more than ever, sustainability is the hot topic crossing manufacturers lips; and labels have a role to play in the food and drink manufacturing sector’s journey towards being more sustainable.

Even if the food or beverage packaging material is highly recyclable, the label choice can have a big impact on its overall recyclability. The choice of label can either undermine or boost sustainable packaging design.

“Packages need label solutions that both enhance and increase overall sustainability and circularity,”​ said Stefano Pistoni – senior manager, Business Development, Wine & Spirits, and Beverage at UPM Raflatac.

“This can mean renewable label materials, wash-off solutions that increase the recycling yield, resource-optimised labels, etc. All such solutions help food and beverage brands both meet their material reduction targets to save costs and combat climate change.”

Solutions now available to food and drink manufacturers include label materials designed to reduce material usage while promoting the use of post-consumer recycled content and renewables. One such example is Raflatac’s own SmartChoice range of label materials.  

“Some innovative examples include the Ocean Action label, the world’s first label material made from ocean bound plastic through a mass balance approach, and the RAFNXT+ label material, the world’s first label material verified by the Carbon Trust to help mitigate climate change​,” Pistoni added.

“Labels have the power to promote circularity in three ways: by enabling packaging recycling, promoting package reuse, and encouraging efficient recycling of label waste, which then allows label materials to stay in the loop.”

Laser coding: Dropping the inks from labels

The Macda ID UK SPARK coder

No matter how resilient your labels are, there’s always the concern that something could happen to them. From tampering to accidental removal in transit, the risk that a label could be damaged is still present.

However, developments in laser technology have presented a new option for food and drink manufacturers. Food Manufacture has previously featured laser coding to etch barcodes directly into food products and now Macsa ID UK hopes to make that technology more accessible to a wider audience.

The SPARK coder offers advanced laser technology and consumable-free operation to ensure running, maintenance and repair costs are kept to a minimum. Compact, lightweight and easy to connect, it is designed to mark the wide range of substrates used to package products including labels, cardboard boxes, a wide range of plastics, glass, wood, paper and board, metals, rubber and textiles.

The SPARK offers high quality, permanent marking that does not smudge like inkjet. It applies vital data, such as lot codes, dates, batch numbers, QR codes and other alphanumeric information, which cannot be altered or manipulated to ensure brand protection and product traceability throughout the manufacturing process and supply chain.

According to Macsa, the combination of ‘easy to follow’ visual aids, tutorials and a new touchscreen make the system easy to configure, use and maintain – even for an operator without any prior technical knowledge, a plus in an age where manufacturers are considering the use of more automation to counter labour issues.

Set up time can be reduced by up to 90% while essential maintenance should take no more than five minutes. New software and templates incorporated into SPARK, including barcodes, expiry dates, QR codes and Datamatrix, help reduce message creation times by up to 50%.

SPARK’s smaller footprint and compact design make it adaptable for multiple installations and is capable of operating at speeds up to 15000 and 35000 products per hour for the 10W and 30W model respectively.

Related news

Show more

Follow us

Featured Jobs

View more


Food Manufacture Podcast

Listen to the Food Manufacture podcast