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close this bookAppropriate Food Packaging (ILO)
View the documentPreface
View the documentAcknowledgements
Open this folder and view contents1 Food and packaging
Open this folder and view contents2 Types of food and prevention of deterioration
Open this folder and view contents3 Packaging materials
close this folder4 Filling and labelling
View the document4.1 Filling equipment
View the document4.2 Labels and labelling
Open this folder and view contents5 Production, re-use and re-cycling of packaging
Open this folder and view contents6 Implications of introducing packaging
Open this folder and view contents7 Benefits and costs of food packaging
View the documentGlossary
Open this folder and view contentsResources

4.2 Labels and labelling

Although the label on a packet or container generally has little functional role in terms of product protection it is nevertheless of vital importance. The label is the primary point of contact between the producer and the purchaser and should be thought of as an integral part of the producer's marketing plan. It is not just a piece of paper stuck onto the container but should be an expression of a number of important decisions that have been made about marketing. Good labels are not just for large producers but can be used by small enterprises as well. If producers have confidence in their products that confidence should show through at the selling point. The old adage 'Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail' is worth remembering.

The most important roles of the label include:

- Persuading the buyer to purchase the product without tasting or smelling it, rather than that of a competitive brand which may be next to it on the shelf. For the first-time buyer the appearance of the food, including the label, is the most influential factor that attracts the customer. If a first-time buyers find nothing wrong with the product they will buy again and quickly develop a loyalty to the brand.
- Informing the customer clearly about the product; its contents, ingredients, its weight. The label must also comply with any local labelling regulations.
- Increasingly the label is required to inform the customer about the shelf-life of the food - its 'use by date'.
- In some cases the label needs to inform the buyer about storing the food. Examples include frozen foods or foods that need refrigeration after opening.
- Sometimes the customer may need to be told how to use the food product and recipes are commonly included on products that are used as ingredients in cooking.

There are two distinct categories of labels:

- Direct printed labels: These are printed directly onto the container which may be a box, bottle, tin or plastic bag which is then filled and closed.
- Applied labels: Those that are attached or glued to the container, generally after filling and closing. Such labels are attached, most commonly by sticking them on to the package. Applied labels are available plain (they have to be stuck on with a glue), or selfadhesive ready-glued (simple wetting is required prior to application). It is recommended that plain labels and self-adhesive labels are used in humid tropical countries, as ready-glued labels loose their efficiency and may stick together while in store.

If the product is sold in a returnable bottle wet strength paper labels should be used. These can be easily removed in one piece when washing returned bottles so reducing bottle washing times.

Special finish labels such as metallized paper and paper-aluminium foil laminates are sometimes used for foods that require a highly decorative label, particularly spirits and beers where the greater profits justify the extra expense.

For the small and medium producer the most common available choices are shown in Table 4-1.

For canned foods

Glued on paper labels that


wrap right round the tin


Self adhesive labels


Note: direct printing of cans


requires very large orders

Glass bottles and jars

Glued on paper labels of


many shapes


Self adhesive labels

Plastic bottles

Self adhesive labels


Glued on paper


Direct printing at medium to large scale

Heat sealed plastic bags and

Paper label inserted inside




Self adhesive labels


Direct printing onto film is


economic at medium scale

Paper bags

Direct printing or stencilling


Glued on or self adhesives

Cardboard boxes

Direct printing or stencilling


Glued on or self adhesive labels

Table 4-1: Types of labels

Labels may be applied to different parts of the container. This is particularly true of bottles and typical applications are shown in Figure 4.8.

The first step will be for the manufacturer to decide which of the above label options are available and then select depending on cost, volume needed, and the minimum order that can be placed.

4.2.1 Label design

Good label design is very important. Unfortunately many small producers either seem prepared, or are forced due their circumstances, to accept a second-rate design and quality when, for little extra cost per package, they could use a quality label that would raise the food's brand image and competitiveness. Some very small manufacturers try to market their food products with a hand written label, often stuck to the container with Sellotape. While it was possible to see many products for sale labelled in this way it is now much less common because it is less acceptable to the customer who is increasingly informed and being offered alternative brands.

If a product range is being produced it is normally best to use a common basic design in order to develop a Brand Image. Indeed for the smaller producer the use of a basic generic or family label is often a good way of reducing both design and print costs. Generic labels have a standard artwork design and can include other standard information such as the manufacturer's name and address and possibly the net weight together with a blank area into which the other information such as the product name and ingredients can be overprinted or even added by means of a rubber stamp. With the availability of computers such overprinting onto self-adhesive strips of labels is an easy job. The use of generic labels means that larger print runs of the basic colored label can be made so lowering the unit cost of printing and design. The same system of a generic design can be used for rubber stamp printing labels. An example of a generic label is shown in Figure 4.9.

When using printed labels, the work of designing the label is too often left to a local printer rather than using professional designers who are also skilled in the marketing and brand image aspects of product presentation. The proper use of color, pictures and graphics can change a poor looking pack of food into one that suggests quality and reliability. The design also has to relate to the customer. A confectionery product aimed at children for example needs to give a different message than one aimed at upper middle-class customers. This is the skill and craft of the designer. When possible it is recommended that the services of a designer should be used. Designers may be contacted through bodies such as local art schools and export development agencies.

If the small producer is unable to afford or find assistance in design what can they do? In thinking about a label design the following questions need to be seriously considered for they are part of the overall business and marketing plan:

- Who are the potential buyers? Women, men, children, etc.
- Are there any local laws governing labelling? (here advice needs to be sought from the local Standards Bureau). This leads to what information must be included.
- Has a brand name been decided upon? If not this is essential.
- What message is given by the label (i.e. it is nutritious, high quality, convenient to use).
- What other information should be given to assist the consumer such as: How to use? Use by date? Recipes?
- Are the labels to be sent out to a printer and if so is one color or more going to be used? This last point will greatly influence any artwork or drawings used.
- Is the product going to face competition from other brands? If so it is a very good idea to carefully examine their labels and think about how your design can give a greater visual impact.

The next step is to begin to design the label and it is usually possible to find a local person who is artistic to help. It often helps to write and draw the needed information (weight, Brand, address, etc) on small bits of paper which can then be moved around a 'blank' of the label until the most attractive layout is found. It is useful to look carefully at as many other labels as possible and learn from them. The final aim is a good design that will give a message to the customer in a few seconds.

- Too much artwork or words should be avoided and label kept visually clear.
- The BRAND name should stand out.
- Colors should be used carefully and colors most commonly used by large companies noted.
- The label should state confidence in the product.

The size of label used is very important and packs of food are often to be seen whose appearance is spoiled by the use of a label that is too large and which 'kinks' over the curved top or bottom part of a jar (Figure 4-10).

The quality of the paper used in terms of brightness and gloss is also of prime importance. In general a white, high-gloss label with crisp printing has a higher customer appeal - it says 'quality'.

4.2.2 Information needed on the label

The information that needs to be given on a label varies depending on the country and the product. Most countries now have some form of food labelling laws and the manufacturer should consult the relevant local standards authority before designing any label. As a minimum the label should clearly state:

- the name of the product,
- the net weight,
- the ingredients, in order of amount,
- the name and address of the manufacturer,
- the Brand name.

Other information such as a sell-by date may be required. This can be done using small rotary date stamps (the type commonly used in offices). If a product with a shelf-life of six months then was made on 1/4/92 it would need to be stamped Best By 1/10/92.

In many countries, particularly in Europe and North America, the laws governing labelling are complex. Manufacturers in developing countries often state that they wish to export but few realize the complexity of conforming to the laws of the importing country. Figure 4-11 shows the typical information needed for a jam to be sold in the United Kingdom.

4.2.3 Production of printed labels

Printed labels are produced by five basic methods: letterpress, flexographic, silk screen, offset litho and rotogravure. In developing countries all of these systems may be available but vary considerably in standard of equipment and the printer's skill. Always look at samples of the printer's work!

Letterpress is mainly for sheet printing particularly of labels. While popular it is rather slow and tends to be used for short runs. One color is printed at a time so multicolor labels require several passes through the press and any 'slipping' of a second color can give disastrous results. It can give crisp and sharp images on good surfaces. Artwork should be drawings not photographs.

Flexography is perhaps the most widely used method for paper, board, flexible plastics and aluminium foil. The printing method is fast and several colors can be printed on one run as the inks used are rapid drying.

Suitable for short, medium and long runs. Photographs can only be reproduced if the printer has special plates. It can print on rolls of self-adhesive labels.

Silkscreen printing is used for plastic and glass bottles. It is excellent for both small or large operations and can be applied manually or automatically. It is essential that the type of ink used does not react with the container. The artwork should not involve very fine lines or small text. Not suitable for photographs.

Offset Litho printing is used for paper, board and tinplate. Commonly used for stationary, posters and boxes. It varies in range from small two-color print shops to high-speed machines that can produce full-color photographs. While self-adhesive labels (called crack and peel) can be be produced they are more difficult to use manually and are better for machine labelling. Artwork can include photographs. Although unit costs are higher the final result can tee excellent. Due to the type of inks used there can be an odour or taint problem which means that care is needed when used for packaging foods.

Rotogravure is used on very smooth boards, paper, flexible plastics and foils. As it is an expensive method to set up it is used for large print runs, not a feasible option for the small business. Photographs can be reproduced. While the most expensive method it gives the best results especially on plastic films and aluminium foil.


Non-shiny finish, does not


take very fine print, cheap

One side gloss

Thickness and type of coating


selected based on printing


system used. Does not stain


as easily as matt


Normally in range 80 to


100 g/m2

Wet strength

Strongly recommended if


returnable bottles are involved


The direction of the fibres.


Important to prevent labels


curling (Figure 4-12) from the


package. As a rule fibre


direction should be at right


angles to the vertical axis of


the package

Table 4-2: Common characteristics of paper used for labels

The type of paper used will also need to be discussed with the printer who will know which papers run best on his presses. The purchaser however needs to be sure that the best paper is used for the type of product and intended market.

Liaison with the printer

If using a label designer it is most important that the person has a knowledge of the types of printing systems and paper types that are locally available and the skill levels of particular printers when preparing artwork. The client should be sure that the designer does indeed have this local knowledge prior to contracting for artwork. The following points need to be considered:

- Which methods are best for the package and its surface? Check with printers and ask for samples to try on your container.
- What systems do local printers have?
- How many colors can the printer handle? Ask to see examples to check that they really can multicolour print well.
- What is the minimum run, how do unit prices change if print runs are increased? Ask for quotes for different print runs and see which is most economical, but do not forget that you may have to pay interest on a loan to buy larger amounts.
- What redress is there if the printer does not deliver work of the required quality? Make sure there is a written agreement.
- Are the inks to be used safe for contact with food and does any local legislation cover printing inks for food use? Discuss with relevant local, Food Standards office.
- If automatic labelling machines are to be used can the printer meet the size tolerances of the machine, often less than plus or minus 0.25 mm. Also the grain or fibre direction of the paper may be important for some machines. Try and talk to another customer to make sure they are satisfied with the printer's work.

Other ways of snaking labels

While the use of printed labels should be the aim of small entrepreneurs wishing to expand their sales, in many cases the costs involved are simply too high or labels are difficult to obtain. What then can be done other than sticking a hand-written label onto the package?

The use of rubber stamps and stencils is often appropriate for small-scale producers, indeed stencils are commonly used even by large companies for marking and coding outer boxes (Figure 4-13).

Manual stamping with rubber stamps onto paper board or cloth is possible (Figure 4-14). In many developing countries hand made rubber stamps are available at moderate cost. Essentially the letters, etc., are cut from sheet rubber and stuck to a back board. Children's rubber stamp sets are made which contain capital and small letters together with numbers. The use of such a set would allow the production of crisp labels that could be made more visually attractive by using colored inks and papers. By using more than one hand stamp a multicolor label is possible.


While labels are individually cheap they do, because of the numbers that have to be ordered, represent a major cash outlay for the small producer. Printers often, on receiving a request for labels cost the job as a 'one-off'. If possible the producer should try and give the printer an estimated annual need, on which a better price can be given. Many print shops may be prepared to print the number of labels needed for a year but allow the customer to take delivery and pay for monthly volumes provided that a commitment is made to buy all the stock. This is worth exploring.

4.2.4 Application of labels

The type of glue used to fix the label to the container is very important, particularly when machine labelling cans and glass. The two main types of glues used are water soluble (starch and cellulose based) and non-water soluble (plastic polymer based). The producer should try out a number of glues that are locally available and select the best suited to their purpose. While glue can also be made up cheaply in house from boiled starch it should be remembered that starch-based glues will tend to loose adhesion in humid climates. If returnable bottles are involved water soluble glues should be used to make bottle washing easier. If machine labelling is to be used the machine supplier should be consulted about the best adhesive.

Most small-scale food manufacturers in developing countries hand label their products and a good operator can label two to five simple packs per minute. When hand-labelling it should be remembered that workers tire doing such a repetitive job so rotation of staff to other work will maintain efficiency.

Labelling speeds can be increased by using simple manual or powered machines to apply the strips of glue to the label. Figure 4-15 shows a typical powered label gluer with an output of up to 40 labels per minute.

Small semi-automatic labelling machines, such as that shown in Figure 4-16 are available but, unless a large daily output of product is involved or local labour costs are extremely high, they are unlikely to be economical. It should also be remembered that such machines have very critical tolerances regarding label size, paper grain, type of glue, etc.

Self-adhesive labels are supplied in rolls and sheets fixed to a 'release' paper. While paper self-adhesive labels are most common, special types such as plastic and aluminium foil laminates are available. The label is peeled off the release paper, exposing the adhesive and simply applied to the container. Although more expensive than glued paper labels they are quicker to apply by hand giving lower labour costs. Self-adhesive labels can be applied with small hand-held machines and by semiautomatic labellers. The typical semi-automatic self-adhesive labeller can apply 30 to 40 labels/min to flat and curved surfaces.

Labelling of plastic bags

Foods packed in plain (non-printed) plastic bags can be labelled in several ways. Self-adhesive labels can be applied to the outside. When using self-adhesive labels it is often best to label before filling to obtain a flat bag surface and hence better adhesion. Labels are often simply slipped into the packet where they are in contact with the food. This practice is not recommended unless the manufacturer is sure that the inks used are safe for food contact. A much better way is to actually seal the label into a pouch or pocket above the foodstuff.

Storage of Labels

All labels should be stored flat under cool, dry conditions. As paper expands and contracts with humidity changes it may be necessary, when using semi-automatic labellers to have a small heated conditioning chamber in which the labels are brought to the correct moisture (and hence size) before passing to the machine.

4.2.5 Quality control

- Major faults:


- information on label wrongly printed, mis-spellt,
- incorrect colors used,
- major error in size,
- major print quality errors,
- no glue, if applicable.

- Minor faults:


- strong but acceptable color variations,
- size error, but label usable,
- minor error of registration of colors.

The importance of the label should not be underestimated by small-scale manufacturers. Consumers all over the world are becoming increasing affected by advertising and media and more conscious of what they perceive as 'quality'. This perception, at least at the point of first purchase, is based largely on the appearance of the food they are buying and the message it gives. Nowadays a high quality product that does not look attractive and professional is unlikely to survive against what may well be inferior competition.

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