Food Packaging and Society

A safe food supply is something that few people think about today, but that was not always the case. As Americans moved from rural areas of the country to urban areas, they came to rely upon the food they bought rather than the food they raised or grew. Even the simplest of food items were often contaminated in the shipment and storage necessary for the movement to urban grocery shelves.

We don’t think about the phrases “cracker barrel” and “bottom of the barrel” as a threat to food security, but at one-time food items were contained in barrels in stores. Consumers would reach into the barrel to grab what they wanted to buy. Obviously, this was unsanitary. Food was contaminated with insects, human germs, vermin, etc. It was the Nabisco Company who started using an inner seal for crackers they sold in the boxes of saltine crackers we still buy today. Who first thought of the inner seal? We don’t know who this hidden hero was but the inner seal is commonly used in many products we buy today.

Bottles used for food storage today are generally thrown away (or recycled). But at one time, bottles were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford to buy items in bottles. It was a young man, Michael Owens, with virtually no education who envisioned a bottle-making machine that made the packaging of bottled food much safer. While plastic has replaced glass bottles in many cases today, just imagine how much we rely upon bottles for safe food supplies.

Tin cans are another common food packaging method. At one time, the lids on tin cans were soldered on with lead. Lead drops would fall into the food causing food poisoning. In other cases, the soldering job left air holes resulting in contaminated food. A hidden hero came up with the idea of a lid which could be crimped on to the can rather than soldered. Who was the hidden hero? We don’t know.

When you buy many products today you may not think about the bag containing the product and why it looks glossy, and it may feel slippery. That’s a glassine package. It has the ability to block air, water, and other contaminants from affecting the food inside. Glassine packaging first was used to supply soldiers with safe food they would carry into battle. Without glassine packaging, many of our popular food items would be unavailable today. Who was the hidden hero behind the glassine packaging? We don’t know.

We rarely think of the hidden heroes who developed packaging for food security. Imagine their impact on our democracy. Every day, all of us consume food products that are packaged with the innovations of these hidden heroes. But in many cases, we don’t know who they were. Nor do we even think of their contributions.

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            “Each stage of the supply chain that delivers food from the farm to the dinner table is obligated to improve, or at a minimum not degrade, the food risk profile.” – Mike Robach (Food supply professional)

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